Art | July 11, 2022 12:59 pm

Revisiting an Infamous 1940 Painting of the Signing of the Constitution

The painting was slashed in 1967

Howard Chandler Christy painting
"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy.
Howard Chandler Christy

Some paintings commissioned by the United States government have sparked a generally positive, even laudatory, public response. Consider Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, which drew an abundance of viewers to the National Portrait Gallery and has prompted thorough analysis by some art writers. It’s one example of a work of art that transcended its official function.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have a more stylistically restrained work like Howard Chandler Christy’s 1940 painting Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States. As a new article by Samantha Baskind in Smithsonian Magazine points out, the process by which Christy created this painting is fascinating — even if the results didn’t garner nearly as much acclaim.

The painting was commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. The article details Christy’s dedication to accuracy for the subjects of the painting, including looking at contemporary portraits of the document’s signatories and delving into George Washington’s archive to find accurate clothing for the first president.

Other details of the painting’s creation proved more controversial. According to what curator Michele Cohen told Baskind, Christy “was a society artist and illustrator more than a painter committed to public art” — though Christy had recently painted portraits of two of the government figures involved in commissioning this painting. The amount he was paid — $30,000, or around $600,000 in 2022 dollars — also prompted some frustration by opponents of the painting.

The size of Christy’s work has also proven contentious over the years. It rests in a frame that’s 20 feet by 30 feet, limiting the areas where it can be hung. It was also vandalized in 1967, though subsequent restorations have focused on repairing part of the painting that was slashed.

Even if Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States isn’t in your artistic wheelhouse, the story behind how it came to be makes for interesting reading — a glimpse into the political process of bygone decades, and the controversies that resulted.