Exhibition | The American Revolution: A World War

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on July 4, 2018

Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberge, The Siege of Yorktown, 1786; gouache on panel, 24 × 37 inches
(Private Collection of Nicholas Taubman)

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Van Blarenberghe’s two Yorktown paintings were on view last year at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution. Press release (21 June 2018) from The National Museum of American History:

The American Revolution: A World War
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C., 26 June — 9 July 2019

Curated by David Allison

A global lens is placed on the story of American independence in the exhibition The American Revolution: A World War, open June 26 through July 9, 2019, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The focal point of this one-year exhibition, on view in The Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Gallery, centers on two historical paintings that depict the culminating events at Yorktown in 1781, which ended the war on American soil, and a portrait of General George Washington.

Charles Willson Peale, Washington at Yorktown, 1780–82, painted for French General Comte de Rochambeau.

The American Revolution: A World War explores the Franco-American partnership during the Revolution and the extent to which international relations shaped the formation of the United States. General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, led the French forces at Yorktown. Two of the paintings were created by Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberghe and are copies he made for Rochambeau of paintings presented to King Louis XVI. The Washington portrait is by Charles Willson Peale. All three once hung in Rochambeau’s home as reminders of his partnership with Washington that resulted in the American victory.

“The American colonies had no hope of winning their independence alone,” said David Allison, project director and senior curator of the exhibition. “They had to gain support from other European powers, most importantly from France and Spain and the involvement of these nations would affect not only the history of the new United States of America, but their own histories as well.”

The Siege of Yorktown and The Surrender of Yorktown, both painted in 1786, and the Washington portrait painted in 1780–82 are united for the first time in a national museum since they were displayed together in the 1700s in Rochambeau’s chamber. The Van Blarenberghe paintings will each be augmented by an interactive computer, allowing visitors to examine enlargements of the paintings and to read eyewitness accounts of the events.

Other artifacts to be displayed include a pistol given to Washington by British General Edward Braddock during the Seven Years War; a cannon used at Yorktown, representing how the French supplied weapons, soldiers, funding and warships to America; Washington’s Yorktown siege map drawn after the conflict; a ship model of Admiral de Grasse’s Ville de Paris, which led the French fleet that blocked British ships; and an almanac and memorabilia commemorating the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to the United States near the 50th anniversary of Independence. In addition to Peale’s Washington, images of the other three leaders involved in the American Revolution will be on display: Rochambeau, the Marquis de Lafayette of France and General Charles Cornwallis of Great Britain.

Americans often think that the American Revolution ended with the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, but, in fact, war continued around the world as European powers fought to defend their interests. These wider conflicts ultimately determined the terms Britain accepted in the 1783 treaty granting the United States its independence. Britain also had to negotiate treaties with France, Spain and the Dutch Republic before the wider war connected to the American Revolution finally concluded in 1784.

The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of Ambassador Nicholas F. and Eugenia L. Taubman with additional support from Jeff and Mary Lynn Garrett and Susan and Elihu Rose. A number of objects are on loan from private collections, museums and other institutions, including the Society of the Cincinnati, Winterthur and the Musée de l’Armée in Paris. The exhibition will open in the recently transformed wing of the museum’s second floor, which is themed The Nation We Build Together and features exhibitions that tell the story of America’s founding and future as a country built on the ideals and ideas of freedom and opportunity.

A book to accompany the exhibition will be published in November:

David Allison and Larrie Ferreiro, eds., The American Revolution: A World War (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2018), 272 pages, ISBN: 978-1588346339, $30.

The American Revolution: A World War argues for the importance of understanding the American Revolution in a global context. The illustrated companion volume to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibition of the same name, this book posits that it is not possible to fully understand the Revolution if it is seen as a solely American conflict. Instead, American motivations and contributions must be considered alongside those of the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Highlighting the often overlooked international nature of the Revolution while grounding it in its origins—the fight for independence from Great Britain—this collection of essays from leading writers on the Revolution touches on such topics as European diplomacy, overseas empires, economic rivalries, supremacy of the seas, and more. Together the book’s incisive text, full-color images, and topical sidebars underscore that America’s fight for independence is most clearly comprehended as one of the first global struggles for power.

David K. Allison is Senior Scholar at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Larrie D. Ferreiro teaches history and engineering at George Mason University in Virginia, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He is the author of Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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