An oil-on-canvas sketch by Constantino Brumidi has recently been added to the U.S. Senate Collection. The sketch served as a preparatory painting for Brumidi's Capitol fresco The Signing of the First Treaty of Peace with Great Britain.
The story of Brumidi's sketch and the final fresco presents a fascinating puzzle that reflects the complicated peace negotiations that ended the American Revolution, and sheds light on the process that Brumidi followed when creating artwork for the Capitol. Brumidi used oil-on-canvas sketches to gain approval for his fresco subjects and to guide him when painting the final works. At times, he was required to alter his ideas in order to obtain authorization to proceed to the fresco stage. This is especially apparent in the case of The Signing of the First Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, the fresco in the U.S. Capitol, above room S-118, formerly the Senate Foreign Relations Committee room.
Brumidi based the composition of his sketch on a 1784 painting by renowned American artist Benjamin West, which commemorated the signing of the preliminary peace treaty between America and Great Britain in 1782.
The peace treaty between Great Britain and United States of America, also known as the Treaty of Paris of 1783, ended the American Revolution and formally secured American independence from Great Britain. The treaty was negotiated the signed in two parts. A preliminary treaty between the United States and Great Britain was signed in 1782 (the subject of Benjamin West's unfinished work). It was agreed at the time that the treaty would go into effect only upon the conclusion of a separate peace between Britain and France, our ally in the Revolutionary War. This was duly accomplished, and the United States and Great Britain signed the final treaty in Paris in 1783.
In his painting, Benjamin West planned to portray all seven of the diplomats who were present at the signing of the 1782 preliminary treaty: American peace commissioners, John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Laurens; secretary to the American delegation William Temple Franklin (Benjamin Franklin's grandson); British commissioner Richard Oswald; and Oswald's secretary Caleb Whitefoord. Although Whitefoord cooperated with West, Oswald refused to pose and West never finished his painting.
Brumidi decided to alter West's design by depicting only six men in his sketch, but his final fresco shows only five. Who did he exclude and why?
An inscription penciled on the back of the sketch provides an important clue. It contains the names of all the Americans who signed the 1782 preliminary treaty: Adams, Franklin, Jay, and Laurens. It also includes the cryptic words "Richard comm. by England." This must refer to Richard Oswald, the only British signer of the 1782 preliminary treaty. There are the five men shown in Brumidi's final fresco. Yet the question remains: Who is the sixth man in the sketch?
If in the sketch Brumidi was attempting to depict the 1782 signing, he shows either too many figures, or too few. To show only six figures and still include all signers, Brumidi would have had to exclude one of the two secretaries. Since this is highly unlikely, the sketch cannot represent the signing of the preliminary treaty.
The sketch could illustrate the 1783 accord, in which case the six figures would represent all four signers of that treaty, as well as the two secretaries who would have been present. The answer to this possibility may lie in the figure with his back to the viewer. This is, to say the least, an unusual posture in a historical painting that is meant to commemorate specific individuals. It becomes all the more pronounced in the final fresco, where Brumidi eliminate the figure that appears on the far right in the sketch, freeing ample space to place the figure beside or behind the table, thus exposing his face. He must have intentionally obscured the features of this figure.
A reasonable explanation for this is that Brumidi most likely did not know what the man looked like. There is one man who was present at either of the two signings of whom no likeness is known to exist: Richard Oswald, the man who refused to pose for Benjamin West.
The only option remaining is that Brumidi originally intended to commemorate the entire treaty process, depicting the six men who actually signed either of the two treaties. (Adams, Franklin, and Jay signed both treaties, Laurens and Oswald signed in 1782, and British Commissioner David Hartley signed only in 1783).
The inscription on the reverse of the sketch directs Brumidi to focus only on the first signing, therefore eliminating the far-right figure of David Hartley.
Brumidi never intended for his sketches to be seen by the public, but as historical documents these rough drafts are sometimes as important to our understanding of the process used in the decoration of the U.S. Capitol as the murals themselves.