Courtesy Independence National Historical Park, ca. 1860-1870. Click on a delegate to view his biography.
Thomas P. Rossiter was born in New Haven in 1818 and died in New York in 1871. Among his famous paintings are “Picnic by the Lake,” “The Parmly Sisters,” “Visit of the Prince of Wales,” and “Muses and Graces.”
His “Signing of the Constitution,” painted circa 1860-1870, once hung in Independence Hall, Philadelphia. According to Karie Diethorn, Chief Curator, Independence National Historical Park, the Rossiter painting has “been in the museum collection here at Independence Hall since 1875 when it was donated by the person who bought it from Rossiter. It isn’t exhibited by the National Park Service because it’s not accurate in terms of the room’s architecture or furnishings.” The Rossiter painting has been replaced at Independence Hall by the Glanzman painting.
Rossiter’s “Signing” is similar in many ways to Stearn’s earlier portrayal and Christy’s twentieth century rendition, although he does exercise more artistic license. Thirty-nine delegates are portrayed in a room with the curtain over the window still drawn. Washington is higher than anyone else, up there presiding over the signing with what seems almost like a halo behind him. Sunlight is pouring in from somewhere behind the General because the entire setting has a bright character to it.
The chair he is sitting in isn’t quite the Rising Sun chair, but it is close. According to Curator Diethorn, the Rising Sun Chair was moved from Independence Hall in 1800 and did not return until 1872. There is one, and only one, table centrally located in the painting with five delegates busy at work. To their left are eighteen delegates, six sitting in chairs and twelve standing behind them all looking rather content. To Washington‘s right are two delegates and to his right are thirteen conversing over the Constitution.
How many delegates can you recognize other than Washington? Is Madison at the head of the table just below Washington? This actually would conform to Madison‘s own public description of where he sat at the Convention. “I chose a seat in front of the presiding member.” Franklin and Hamilton are recognizable as two of the six people sitting in chairs to the left of the table. But, according to a key to the painting left by Rossiter, he actually placed Madison next to Hamilton even though it doesn’t look like Madison!
This is one of a number of possible inaccuracies in the painting that nevertheless still conveys an interest in the work of the Convention.
There is another oddity about this painting because there is a fortieth person present and it is not William Jackson the recorder. Rather there appears to be a younger person, clearly not a delegate, sitting on the floor. What is he up to? Is he a scribe, a servant, a messenger? Despite these oddities, the Rossiter painting portrayed an important interest at a vital time in the history of the nation. After all, he painted this portrait of the American Founding when the spectre of the Civil War was haunting America.