Artist Constantino Brumidi painted this oil sketch as a preparatory study for his 1874 fresco in the U.S. Capitol, The Signing of the First Treaty of Peace with Great Britain.
The scene commemorates the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the American Revolution and established America’s independence as a sovereign nation. Negotiated and signed in two parts, the preliminary articles of peace between the United States and Great Britain were signed on November 30, 1782; the final treaty signed in 1783 by the United States, Great Britain, Spain, and France was ratified by the Continental Congress in 1784. The resounding success of the American negotiators earned our newly formed nation a place in the arena of international diplomacy. As such, the treaty signing made a fitting subject for the fresco crowning the entrance to S-118, the room occupied by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations at the time of Brumidi’s mural commission. America’s revolutionary history is frequently referenced in the art of the Capitol, and Brumidi executed the sketch and fresco one decade shy of the centennial for the signing of this landmark treaty.
From left to right, Brumidi’s sketch depicts Americans John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens. Jay, who insisted that the treaty recognize America’s sovereignty, stands prominently at the center of the composition. Seated at the negotiating table across from the Americans are British representatives Richard Oswald and David Hartley. Oswald, who was blind in one eye and left no known image of himself, appears in shadowy profile.
Hartley’s presence in the sketch is an anomaly, for he is the one figure who did not participate in the treaty's first signing. Brumidi seems to have recognized this. In what appears to be the artist’s handwriting on the reverse of the sketch is a list that excludes Hartley and names the five men in the sketch who were actually present at the first signing–the same five figures that Brumidi would later depict in the fresco. Also on the oil sketch’s reverse, the phrase “Treaty of Paris 1782” is legible to the naked eye while the date “Nov 30th” is visible with infrared light. These telling clues indicate that from sketch to fresco, Brumidi refined the figures in the composition to make the scene more accurately reflect the event.
For his sketch, Brumidi referenced American artist Benjamin West’s unfinished 18th-century painting, American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain. West’s painting influenced the composition and the poses of the figures in Brumidi’s work. Brumidi’s knowledge of the American Revolution also informed his treatment of the subject. Brumidi sets the treaty signing in a paneled French interior and presents Benjamin Franklin, spectacles in hand, as the 76-year-old signer of the articles of peace, rather than as the more youthful-looking Franklin seated in West’s grand-manner tableau. One particularly fine detail in Brumidi’s sketch is the black tricorn hat placed on the seat cushion at the far left—an iconic accessory associated with the American Revolutionary War and our nation’s fight for freedom.
The location of Brumidi’s oil sketch was unknown for more than a century, until it was discovered in 2001 at a Massachusetts antique shop. The Senate acquired the work in 2004.
At age 13, Constantino Brumidi entered Rome's prestigious Accademia di San Luca and spent 14 years studying drawing, painting, and sculpture. He earned important commissions and awards during his career in Italy in the 1830s and 1840s. When Brumidi immigrated to America in 1852, his rigorous academic training and professional experience gave him a distinct advantage: Brumidi was one of the few artists in the United States who was skilled at designing murals for large, complex spaces and who was proficient at painting in fresco, a challenging but traditional medium that was desired for the murals at the U.S. Capitol.
In keeping with the practices of his academic training, Brumidi often prepared meticulous, detailed sketches to scale in pencil as one of the preliminary steps to creating a mural. Brumidi would then work up preparatory studies, typically in oil on canvas, of the proposed scenes. The preparatory studies would be submitted for review to officials in charge of the decoration of the Capitol.
Once the proposed mural in a preparatory study was approved, Brumidi would enlarge the scene from the study to a full scale rendering on oversize paper, traditionally called a cartoon. The outlines of the images could then be transferred from the cartoon onto the wall or ceiling. Brumidi used the details worked out in the studies–such as coloring or shading–as his guide when executing a mural. Many of the preparatory studies for Brumidi’s work in the Senate wing of the Capitol are in the Senate collection.