John Trumbull's portrait of Alexander Hamilton
September 9, 2013 | A full-length portrait by the celebrated Revolutionary-era painter John Trumbull of Alexander Hamilton, then secretary of the treasury under President George Washington, has joined the permanent collections of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, thanks to a gift from the painting's former owner, the global wealth manager and investment bank Credit Suisse. Each institution owns a half share of Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, which is currently on view in the new American Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum. In subsequent years, the museums will each exhibit the painting for a two-year period. As the greatest known portrait of Hamilton and one of the finest civic portraits from the Federal period, the painting is a splendid addition to both collections and demonstrates how institutions can enrich access to art by working together.
In December 1791 a committee of five New York merchants, some of whom were members of the recently founded Chamber of Commerce, commissioned Trumbull to paint the portrait, writing to Hamilton that they were "desirous of expressing the sense they entertain of the Important Services you have rendered your Country." Hamilton and Trumbull were Revolutionary colleagues and friends. Hamilton probably sat for the portrait early in 1792, when Trumbull was visiting Philadelphia. Trumbull's rendering of Hamilton's proud composure, delicate features, and intelligent expression would ultimately be etched in the consciousness of Americans.
The painting was first hung in City Hall, but it was moved to the chamber's offices in 1797, where it served as a testimony to the members' admiration for the sitter and commemorated Hamilton as a model of public and mercantile virtue. Trumbull succeeded in pleasing both the donors and the sitter. Rather than conveying the connotations of power the merchants so respected in this subject, Hamilton wished to "appear unconnected with any incident of my political life. The simple representation of their fellow Citizen and friend will best accord with my feelings." To express the sense of formality and dignity appropriate to a grand scale public portrait, the artist relied on traditional props--a column, background architecture, and a robe thrown over a chair--all of which derived from European grand manner portraiture. At the same time, Trumbull did not include overtly political symbols that would have been suitable for the man who had served as Washington's military secretary, a cabinet officer, and the powerful leader of the Federalist party. The delicate color scheme and soft highlights suggest a restrained, unofficial atmosphere. Trumbull's sympathetic portrayal of Hamilton represents his respect for the Federalist leader, whose fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804 the artist called "that unhappy event which deprived the United States of two of their most distinguished citizens."
Credit Suisse acquired the painting in 2000, when it purchased the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette. Founder Richard Hampton Jenrette had amassed a large collection of art for the corporation, including this painting in 1983 from the New York Chamber of Commerce.
ELIZABETH MANKIN KORNHAUSER is Curator of American Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art