A Pictorial Narrative
In 2009, Hillsdale College commissioned artist Sam Knecht to produce a large oil painting illustrating the signing of the United States Constitution. The painting hangs in the Kirby Center's Van Andel Lecture Hall.
Hillsdale College was founded in 1844 with a clear commitment to the principles of civil and religious liberty that underlie the American Constitution. This commitment remains central to the teaching of the College. The commissioning of The Signing of the American Constitution is an extension of this commitment, and reflects a belief in the power of art to bring ideas alive. As professor of art at Hillsdale College for over 30 years, Sam Knecht holds deeply to this belief.
His painting depicts the story of the Constitution’s signing on September 17, 1787, in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the same place where the Declaration of Independence had been signed 11 years before. Although the Declaration's signing has been painted frequently, there are few artistic renditions of the Constitution’s signing.
The Research Process
Planning a canvas over nine feet wide and five feet tall, Knecht wanted to place the viewer in the midst of the signing event. Before putting paint on canvas, he engaged in six months of research to create a frame of reference for thousands of compositional decisions.
This research began with a comprehensive bibliography of written documentation. Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arnn, Bill of Rights Institute President David J. Bobb, and other Hillsdale professors of politics and history provided valuable guidance. Richard Brookhiser, author of several biographies of America's founders, offered valuable suggestions. Karie Diethor, chief curator of the Independence National Historical Park, answered dozens of questions regarding the Assembly Room and its history. Professor Knecht also met with scholars from the Clothing and Textiles Division of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to study and photograph 18th century dress.
Knecht was granted special photography privileges inside the Assembly Room of Independence Hall. Seven actors from the American Historical Theatre in Philadelphia were employed as models for George Washington, James Madison, and other key delegates. The photo session yielded reference shots vital to capturing the correct arrangment, poses, scale, and lighting.
Creating the Composition
Once research, sketching, and photography were completed, Professor Knecht developed a finished artistic composition. Desiring to create a dynamic portrayal of the event, he rejected the one-point perspective typically used by the previous painters of the Declaration and Constitution's signings to capture the large scene.
Knecht employed two-point perspective to create more depth and movement in the scene. Though they stand in the back of the room, Washington and Madison are the painting's focus, drawing the viewer into the center of the room. The viewer’s vantage point is be slightly right of center, while Washington and Madison are slightly to the left. He sees delegates arranged around the room's perimeter, but his eye is always drawn back to Washington and Madison.
Knecht also arranged the painting's many subjects more naturally than his predecessors, who had traditionally lined the individuals up in a single row. In Knecht's painting, signers are clustered together in small groups. Some stand with their backs to the viewer and others are captured mid-conversation.
Light as a Symbol
Realistic painting demands unified control of light as it illuminates form. In the Assembly Room, light flows from large windows on the north (left) and south (right) sides. Because the photo shoot took place during the evening, Knecht used studio lighting to simulate morning light.
The Constitutional Convention met during a hot, humid summer in the heart of Philadelphia. Despite the heat, windows and blinds were closed to prevent outsiders from seeing or hearing the delegates’ debates, which were frequently contentious. Knecht imagined that the need for secrecy had passed by the time of the signing, and the windows had been opened to let in fresh air and light. The brightly lit scene reflects the optimism for American life and liberty under the new Constitution.
In addition to illustrating eyewitness accounts of the signing day, the canvas highlights certain delegates who played important roles at the Constitutional Convention. In this way, the painting portrays the larger narrative of the Convention's story by illustrating a single moment.