James Monroe is the Waldo of historic masterpieces.
James Monroe played a role in several major world events before becoming America’s fifth president, but he doesn’t get the same love his fellow founders do. History, and art, tend to put him in the background.
I want to take him out of the background of three famous historical paintings by sharing some background on how he got there.
1. Washington Crossing the Delaware
by Emanuel Gottlieb-Leutze, 1851
The most famous artwork of American history ever created depicts Patriot troops crossing the icy Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, to launch a surprise attack on the enemy camp in Trenton, New Jersey.
Can you spot James Monroe among the Revolutionaries below?
18-year old Colonel James Monroe is depicted behind Washington, holding the American flag.
Also, the boats in the painting are too small, the ice is too chunky, and the river is too narrow. Not to mention Washington’s crossing didn’t take place on a clear, glorious morning – it happened in the dead of night in a snowstorm.
There is also contention about whether they could have realistically stood in the boat without falling overboard. Historian David Hackett Fischer says the actual boats had taller sides and they would have stood to avoid the icy water at the bottom of the boat.
Whatever the case, George Washington probably wasn’t standing in that iconic pose, a stance one New York Times critic said gave him “the head and air of a dancing master…ready to teeter ashore and dance a pirouet on the snow.” Washington was known to be a good dancer, but not Nutcracker good.
I would cut the artist some slack for the inaccuracies – Emanuel Gottlieb-Leutze painted this piece of Americana in Dusseldorf, Germany 75 years after the event it captures. To put that in perspective, that would be like a painting of Pearl Harbor done today, by someone with no access to photographs or recordings.
Leutze strived for authenticity, but it was secondary to his main goal. First and foremost he wanted his depiction of the American Revolution to inspire Germans to come together after the Revolution of 1848. In their goals to inspire, Leutze and Washington were in a similar boat, as the Battle of Trenton itself was brilliantly engineered as an inspiring piece of propaganda.
In December 1776 the Patriots were sorely losing their war for independence and troop numbers and morale were dwindling. Washington needed to change the narrative, and he set his sights on the Hessian camp in Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians were highly-trained German mercenaries working for the British – basically the 18th century equivalent of Terminators. If the scrappy Americans could launch a successful surprise attack on those time-traveling cyborgs, it would show the world they had a fighting chance.
Washington’s plan worked. News of their victory spread across the United States, raising troop morale and boosting recruitment. It also spread across the Atlantic, convincing France to throw in her game-changing support.
|Metropolitan Museum of Art visitors viewing Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1907|
Recently film director Zack Snyder said he thought about making a movie about George Washington in the style of his film 300. He said the first thing he thought about was “how are we going to make it look?” He pointed to Leutze’s painting and said, “It looks like 300. It’s not that hard.”
Surprisingly, I don’t have a problem with Snyder making an over-the-top action movie based on an inaccurate painting depicting a battle fought primarily for its propaganda value. It sounds like exactly what popcorn was made for. If it does happen, I look forward to teenage James Monroe being played by a young up-and-coming (almost certainly Australian) actor ready to make his mark on the world, just like the real James Monroe in 1776.
2. Capture of the Hessians at Trenton
by John Trumbull, 1787-1828
Set just hours after Washington Crossing the Delaware, this piece shows what happened following the Continental Army’s sneak attack on the Hessian forces.
James Monroe appears in the painting, bleeding to death on the ground. Can you spot him among these wounded men?
If you guessed this gentleman…
|Nope. Not this guy.|
…you’re wrong. You might think that’s him because of the flag, but Monroe was not actually a flagboy. (As far as I can tell, this fallen soldier’s identity is unknown.)
THIS is James Monroe, being cradled by a doctor:
|Monroe owed his life to that doctor’s dogs.|
While sneaking through the snowy countryside earlier that morning, Monroe’s regiment was spotted by a few dogs. Their howling woke their master, John Riker, who came outside screaming profanities at the armed men he mistook for British soldiers. When he realized they were the American army, he volunteered to join them on them spot, saying, “I am a doctor and I may be of help to some poor fellow.”
Early in the battle, Monroe was shot down while charging Hessian cannons. A musket ball pierced his chest, lodged in his shoulder, and severed an artery. Dr. John Riker expertly clamped Monroe’s artery and stopped the bleeding, saving the poor fellow’s life.
The artist John Trumbull said he composed the picture “for the express purpose of giving a lesson to all living and future soldiers in the service of [their] country, to show mercy and kindness to a fallen enemy – their enemy no longer when wounded and in their power.”
Unlike Emanuel Leutze, Trumbull didn’t have to settle on a drunk stand-in for George Washington; he got the real Washington to exercise on horseback for him so he could get the likeness just right. I don’t think he asked Monroe to lie down and bleed for him.
Of Monroe’s role in the battle, Trumbull said he “was dangerously wounded by a ball which passed through his lungs” and that “fortunate ball…made him president of the United States.”
Trumbull subscribes to what I call the Forrest Gump theory of James Monroe, which sees him as an ordinary man whose greatest talent was being in the right place at the right time. That’s opposed to the Harlowe Giles Unger theory, who in his biography “The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness” makes the case that Monroe did more for America than any previous president (Washington included) by transforming the nation into “a glorious empire.”
The truth of Monroe’s greatness is probably somewhere in the middle, but getting wounded while executing a strategic attack in a famous battle was definitely a huge bullet point on his pre-presidential resume. Another big one took place 27 years later and 4000 miles away from the Battle of Trenton, and it focused on a very different glorious empire.
#3 The Coronation of Napoleon
by David, 1807
|David’s Coronation is a massive 33 feet wide and 20 feet tall, the size of 2.5 Washington Crossing the Delawares.|
I saw this behemoth of a painting at the Louvre on my honeymoon, and I was instantly captivated. It was like a life-size window back in time to a world controlled by Napoleon.
David’s painting is so famous that there is another famous painting just of people looking at it.
|Boilly’s painting, The Public Viewing David’s “Coronation” at the Louvre is just a few rooms away from Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.|
In 1804, Napoleon decided he wanted to be emperor so he threw the most decadent coronation ever in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Everyone who was anyone was there, including James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth. Monroe might be a little harder to spot in this painting, though.
He should be in this group of diplomats…
…but he’s not. In fact, he’s probably not in the painting at all.
Everything about Napoleon’s coronation was filled with drama, including the Monroes’ presence. Despite getting along fine with Napoleon a year earlier when negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, James and Elizabeth Monroe were informed they were uninvited. Apparently Napoleon’s hot-cold relationship with the United States had cooled over disagreements about the ownership of the Spanish Floridas.
When Monroe appealed to a friendly French senator and got reinvited, he and Elizabeth received invitations relegating them to nosebleed seats “in the gallery, a great measure out of sight, and not with those in our grade, the Foreign Ministers.”
I thought the wedding invitation list drama between my wife and her mother was tense, but Napoleon’s was somehow worse. He refused to invite his brother Joseph, which upset his mother so much that she refused to come herself. Neither of them attended the coronation, but that didn’t stop Napoleon from bending reality to his will. Exerting total control over David’s work, Napoleon had him add both his mother and brother into the painting as if they were one big happy family.
|Napoleon’s mother (upper left) looks happy to be there.|
If there was room in the picture for people who weren’t even there, I felt sure James Monroe had to be there somewhere.
I couldn’t find any evidence that Monroe was included in the painting, so I reached out to an expert: professor and author Philippe Bordes, who literally wrote the book on the artist David and Napoleon. Bordes kindly shared that he’d “never come across mention of the possible presence of Monroe in the picture” and conceded that “there may have been some politics involved.” Politics indeed.Bordes pointed out an American who did make the cut: John Armstrong. As an Ambassador to France, Armstrong outranked Monroe and got a better seat at the party and his image memorialized by David. Had Napoleon known the fates of the two men, I think he would have swapped out Armstrong for Monroe.
In the War of 1812, Armstrong was the Secretary of War, and he was so convinced the British wouldn’t attack Washington, D.C. that he left the city defenseless to the British forces that burned down the White House. President Madison fired him and replaced him with none other than James Monroe, making Monroe both Secretary of State AND Secretary of War at the same time. Armstrong’s incompetence ended up further padding Monroe’s resume and all but ensuring he would be the next president.
|John Armstrong failed at keeping the White House not on fire, but he succeeded in outliving Monroe by twelve years, which was long enough to pose for this sweet picture with his dog.|
Even though no record exists to suggest Monroe is pictured in Coronation, I still can’t help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, David snuck a portrait of him somewhere in the background of his masterpiece.
Could James Monroe be here somewhere?
Or here in the crowd?
Maybe he’s hiding back here.
The often overlooked James Monroe was a soldier, diplomat, governor, and double-Secretary before becoming an extremely popular president. Known as “The Last of the Cocked Hats,” he was a relic of the Revolutionary generation. Because he stands in the shadow of giants who came before him, James Monroe is destined to fade into the background.
Like this creeper:
|That better not be you, James.|
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow James Unger
Washington Crossing the Delaware: Restoring an American Masterpiece by the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile by Philippe Bordes
John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter by Helen A. Cooper
Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer