-by Allie Swislocki
Capitol Tour 101: Visitors, take heed! The Capitol is home to countless pieces of priceless art, which can make it challenging to catch all the details in a quick one-hour-or-so visit to the building. Especially in the Rotunda, where many of the most famous paintings can be seen, it is easy to miss some of the components that make each piece incredibly important, both as beautiful works of art and as visual historical texts.
Well, wake up, class, because this will be on the final! One oddity found in the art of the Rotunda is in John Trumbull’s depiction of General George Washington Resigning His Commission. Take a second look at the crowd surrounding Washington as he hands his power back to the hands of the people he fought to free from tyranny. Right in the middle of this group of gentlemen are two young girls. Who are these figures? They are Catherine, known as Kitty, and Mary Carroll, daughters of Charles Carroll. To this day, historians have been unable to find definitive proof of Kitty and Mary’s presence at the event, leaving their appearance in this scene suspect. To make matters more confusing, there are other women—and children, for that matter—featured in the painting, but they are standing in their normal place in the visitors’ gallery.
A look at who Charles Carroll was may help shed some light on this mystery. Charles Carroll, a Catholic who was initially banned from voting because of his faith, was a very successful planter from Maryland—one of the wealthiest men in the colonies—and therefore was eventually able to overcome many of the social and political restrictions placed on Catholics. Carroll was a staunch advocate of independence for Maryland, and as his call for freedom spread throughout the colony his prominence in the community grew. He was selected as a member of the Annapolis Convention in 1774, and would later sign the Declaration of Independence and serve as a member of the United States Senate representing Maryland. He was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and the longest living—and latest surviving—signer of the document. Carroll’s prestige and fame are apparent and well-deserved, but the question still remains: why were his daughters, who may or may not have been present at the resignation of Washington’s commission, painted right in the middle of the historic scene?
One suggestion is that Trumbull added the Carroll daughters to the work in order to please the illustrious and powerful Charles Carroll. Carroll may have requested that the painter add his family into the painting alongside him. Or Trumbull may have chosen to add them in to make the scene more interesting to viewers, breaking up the monotony of knee pants and soldiers’ uniforms worn by the surrounding men. History, however, has neglected to hand us an exact reason as to why Charles Carroll’s family is depicted with him in the painting, in the midst of the action.
Have a guess about Trumball’s choice to include Kitty and Mary in this painting? Let us know in the comments. And if you have any questions about art, architecture, rooms, or people encountered in the Capitol, let us know. We’re planning a series of posts about oddities, surprises, little known facts, frequently asked questions, and myths to be busted. Look for the category “Questions about the Capitol” to find future entries.