My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Washington’s Hindquarters, or Trumbull’s Revenge

Jo Ann Butler at Clermont
Many years ago I spent a summer working for New York State as a colonial archeologist.  I excavated uncounted cubic yards of dirt at Clermont, the home of Robert Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence.  My crew also did some digging at George Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh.  In the irreverent way of young adults, we referred to the site as “Washington’s Hindquarters.”

Washington's HQ, Valley Forge, PA
That flippant name has popped into my mind now and then; mostly when I visit Valley Forge, where Washington’s troops wintered and trained.  I didn’t expect “Washington’s Hindquarters” to come roaring back into my consciousness in Charleston, South Carolina, but if you go to the ornate council chamber at City Hall, it is inescapable.

Charleston is rightly proud to possess a John Trumbull portrait of George Washington, painted during the president’s lifetime.  But, oddly, you have to make a deliberate search for the painting.  When Richard and I found it, I had to look twice, then three times.

Trumbull’s work is the most startling portrait of the Father of Our Country that I have ever seen.  Commissioned by Charleston, the painting portrays Washington after his 1791 visit to that city.  However, it seems that Trumbull had to paint two portraits for Charleston, and the city found neither of them satisfactory.

Washington at Trenton
Trumbull’s first effort, which shows Washington after his 1776 victory at Trenton, New Jersey, did not please the city fathers, for Trumbull had portrayed Trenton, not Charleston.  They turned it down, and Trumbull produced a second work.  This one showed an identical Washington posed on the shore of Charleston Bay, with the city skyline in the background.

Charleston’s leaders were pleased this time, paid Trumbull his commission, and he promised to deliver the painting after he had added some minor details.  The rejected Trenton portrait was kept by Trumbull, who eventually gave it to the Society of Cincinnati.  When the society was dissolved, they presented it to Yale University.

Washington at Charleston
Here is the second painting; the one which startled me so.  Trumbull’s “minor detail” was Washington’s mount.  The artist turned the animal around.  Now its hindquarters are prominently displayed, with its tail raised as if the horse is about to relieve itself upon a boat containing the city fathers (which isn’t visible in my photograph).  Charleston’s skyline appears in a most-vulnerable position – between the horse’s thighs.

I searched for a higher-quality image than my own photograph for this blog, but couldn’t find one.  Is Trumbull’s Revenge considered to be in poor taste?  Perhaps, but it is a valuable piece of history, and a portrait of the living Washington made by a skilled craftsman.  It is also a warning – annoy an artist at your peril.  Like Charleston’s city fathers in their boat, you may find yourself immortalized in a way that you never imagined.

Photograph and further info sources:

Personal collection

The painting portrayed on the Charleston Forum website is a second portrait that Trumbull made of Washington at Trenton

The Yale portrait is the one rejected by Charleston, and reworked by Trumbull


  1. LOVE IT! And may I add, annoy an author at your peril. We have ways of making you squirm. Bahahaha!

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