“The American Revolution: A World War” Exhibition Opens at the Smithsonian

“If we are [to be] saved, France and Spain must save us.” – Alexander Hamilton (1780)
June 21, 2018
A painting of a battle under a blue sky encased in an ornate gold frame
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 Gen. George Washington.
“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. Gen. 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 1780–1782 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 Gen. 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 Adm. 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 Gen. 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 United States went on to become a world power, influenced by the Revolutionary War to ally with England and France in World War I and WWII.
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 companion book by the same name argues for the importance of understanding the American Revolution in a global context. The illustrated volume, The American Revolution: A World War will expand the story by bringing together a collection of essays from leading historians and scholars from England, France, Spain, the Netherlands and the U.S. Co-edited by Allison and Larrie D. Ferreiro, a historian and naval architect, the book touches on the broad international scope of the American Revolution, including topics such as battles outside America, European diplomacy, economic rivalries, global control of the sea and more. It will be published by Smithsonian Books and released Nov. 6.
“The American Revolution: A World War” is part of the citywide series of exhibitions and programs, “Hamilton in D.C.” offering visitors a unique experience with Hamilton’s history. Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. For more information, visit https://americanhistory.si.edu. The museum is located on Constitution Avenue, between 12th and 14th streets N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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