Trumbull’s Iconic Portrait of Alexander Hamilton Now on View at Metropolitan Museum
Revolutionary-era painter John Trumbull of Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington, is now on view in The American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is the painting’s first showing at the Metropolitan since it was donated, earlier this year, by the global wealth manager and investment bank Credit Suisse to both the Metropolitan Museum in New York and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. At the Metropolitan, the work—which is considered the greatest known portrait of Hamilton and one of the finest civic portraits from the Federal period—is on display in Gallery 755, “Faces of the Young Republic,” of the New Galleries for American Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts among portraits of other great heroes of the post-Revolutionary period.
In December 1791, a committee of five merchants, some of whom were members of New York City’s newly established Chamber of Commerce, commissioned John Trumbull (1756–1843), one of the nation’s leading artists, to paint this full-length portrait of the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804). Destined for display in the Chamber offices, the portrait showed the members’ admiration for Hamilton and commemorated him as a model of public and mercantile virtue.
Hamilton had fought alongside George Washington during the Revolution, and was also his primary financial and legal advisor. After participating in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Hamilton—along with John Jay and James Madison—articulated his nationalist principles of government in a series of articles and essays. Later compiled in two volumes entitled The Federalist, the essays expounded Hamilton’s belief that only a strong federal government could sustain the union and encouraged the delegates to ratify the Constitution. Hamilton envisioned a close collaboration between government and mercantile communities, and launched plans to encourage native manufacturing, to improve the infrastructure of the young republic, and to establish a national bank.
Trumbull’s rendering of Hamilton’s proud composure, delicate features, and intelligent expression would ultimately be etched in the consciousness of Americans. The portrait conveys 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 investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. Founder Richard Jenrette had amassed a large collection of art for the corporation, which went to Credit Suisse as part of the company acquisition. The painting was acquired by the Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Collection of Americana in New York in 1983 from the New York Chamber of Commerce. Following Credit Suisse’s gift of the painting in March to the Metropolitan Museum and Crystal Bridges Museum, each institution now owns a half share. The portrait was on view at Crystal Bridges beginning in 2011, and will return there in 2014. Subsequently, each museum plans to exhibit the painting for two-year periods.