One of the most jarring pictures from last Wednesday’s insurgence at the Capitol, for many, was the image of a Florida man carrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern as he waved at photographers.
The man holding the lectern, 36-year-old Adam Johnson, has since been charged. But locals who saw the photo last week may not have been as worried about the lectern as they were about the 12-by-18-foot oil painting directly behind him.
The 1821 artwork, Surrender of General Burgoyne, is one of four artworks by historical painter John Trumbull that hang proudly in the Capitol’s rotunda. But that painting in the photo holds a special place in the hearts of local historians – it depicts the aftermath of the Second Battle of Saratoga on Oct. 17, 1777, and shows British Lieutenant General John Burgoyne surrendering his sword to U.S. General Horatio Gates. It was the first time in history that a British army had ever surrendered. And now that painting is intertwined with modern-day history.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Sean Kelleher, historian for the Town of Saratoga. “But it was tears of concern that there’s an awful lot of important historical elements there in the U.S. Capitol. And you don’t want to lose any of them. That was my fear. And you sit at home, when you see these images, you’re totally helpless. Obviously, that type of an insurrection makes you worried about democracy. But there’s also a real care to stewardship and the elements within that Capitol.”
In 1817, Congress commissioned Trumbull to produce four paintings for the Capitol. Along with his Saratoga scene, which actually took place in what is now known as Schuylerville, Trumbull’s three other Revolutionary War paintings included the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, General George Washington Resigning His Commission, and, most notably, his painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“It’s really quite an honor for something that happens in our community to be so important that it’s included in that location,” Kelleher said.
The painting itself has undergone many iterations. At what is now known as the sword surrender site, opened by the National Parks Service and other organizations in 2019, a type of sculpture of the painting, a bas relief, gives visitors the option to see what the painting looks like while viewing the landscape of the scene where the event was set.
Kelleher wasn’t the only local person worried about the Capitol’s big historical tie to Saratoga, either. Saratoga National Historical Park interpretive ranger Eric Schnitzer was also fearful of what could happen to Surrender of General Burgoyne last week.
“I saw the photo of the guy carrying the podium off,” Schnitzer said. “And I noticed immediately because I have radar for the Revolutionary War paintings. Every time I’m looking at the interior of the rotunda photos, I’m doing a sweeping scan to see if I could see the Saratoga image, hoping that no damage is being done to the other paintings. As far as I know, no damage was done to any of those paintings.”
While the painting itself was more of an atypical romanticized version of the British surrender on that day in 1777, Schnitzer said, Trumbull’s work is not only important to the Capital Region area, but the U.S. as a whole.
“As a history painter of the early American Republic, John Trumbull was one of the absolute most important people,” Schnitzer said. “Some would probably say the most important.”
After reading a New York Times interview with former Capitol Architect Barbara Wolanin, who was glued to her TV set last week watching events unfold, Schnitzer couldn’t help but feel similarly.
“What could happen to these priceless artworks? They’re undefended. They’re open. They’re just canvas mounted on a wall. Anybody could do anything to it. She was just in absolute fear. And I felt that too, not like her, because it wasn’t my collection. But of course, I have a soft spot for that Saratoga painting.”