To look to paintings for historical accuracy is, in many cases, a sign that you've missed the point. But some paintings are too wrong to ignore.
Either by the artist's fault or our own flawed interpretation, these paintings make big mistakes. This isn't quibbling — these paintings have unquestionably affected how we view history. And we're all dumber for it today.
This isn't how the Declaration of Independence happened
"The Declaration of Independence," painted by John Trumbull in the late 1810s, is a gorgeous and inspiring painting. But it's not really accurate. Trumbull's painting has led to our romanticized and uncomplicated view of a much murkier event.
"He wasn't interested in the realistic view," says Karie Diethorn, chief curator at Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park museum. "He was interested in the symbolic view." That preference is Trumbull's right, but unfortunately most Americans aren't aware of that.
His painting is filled with historical inaccuracies that have inspired numerous complaints. Diethorn notes that the room the Declaration of Independence was signed in looks completely different, but that's just the beginning. Historical figures complained, too: John Quincy Adams said the work was "below the dignity of the subject," and Samuel Adams's grandson carped that it was a "badly executed performance." Their complaints were largely about specific quirks of symbolism, like the titles written on the books in the picture.
But there are more substantive complaints about the painting, too, and those affect how we think of the founding of the country. As this key to the painting shows, Trumbull actually added some people who never signed it, like John Dickinson, and omitted others, like Francis Lightfoot Lee:
These changes matter for a couple of reasons. First, the idea of an epic assembly to sign the Declaration of Independence leads us to misunderstand how the revolution really began — it wasn't with a piece of paper, but with votes and the publication of a notice of revolution in various newspapers.
Second, signing the Declaration of Independence was an act of treason — to add people who didn't sign it and omit those who did sign seriously misrepresents their role in the revolution. Famous leaders like Dickinson vocally opposed signing the declaration, yet in Trumbull's picture he's present without protest.
Caesar's death wasn't so grand
Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1860s portrayal of the death of Caesar is relatively staid: Instead of posing the Roman emperor and his assassins neatly, it adopts a relatively documentary style. But even that seemingly realistic portrayal belies just how rough Caesar's assassination would have been.
Barry Strauss, a Cornell classics and history professor, is the author of The Death of Caesar, and he told me that the location was "a nicely decorated room, but not cavernous." The fight, meanwhile, would have included smuggled in daggers and a vigorous pushback from Caesar (there's some evidence that he fought back with a writing stylus). In the picture, however, he's left behind with a couple of neat stab wounds.
Why do the details matter? Our picture of Caesar's assassination is grand in a way that befits his legacy but that misrepresents the gritty, and more interesting, reality of a political coup.
Napoleon didn't look so awesome crossing the Alps
Jacques-Louis David's early 1800s portrait "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" is our most indelible portrait of the leader.
David was a stickler for some accuracy — he reportedly hated anachronism in painting — but his Napoleon was a heroic cartoon. Napoleon crossed the Alps with a massive army in tow, performing a strategic masterwork by traversing its difficult terrain. That meant he would have used a mule, not a gorgeous steed. Delaroche's 1850 painting of the event is more realistic:
Most people think of the David portrait as a piece of propaganda, so it seems like the embellishment shouldn't matter. But because David's Napoleon rode on a horse instead of a mule, we misremember the actual journey.
Napoleon's crossing of the Alps was an extreme, adventurous, unprecedented way to achieve his reconquest of Italy — a mule better shows how difficult and absurd it was. A horse makes it look easy, when in reality Napoleon's tactic was a much greater gamble.
Washington didn't cross the Delaware like that
By now, it's well-known that Emanuel Leutze's 1851 portrait of Washington crossing the Delaware is inaccurate. The differences from the actual Revolutionary War event, helpfully catalogued on Wikipedia, include many quibbles, like that the flag is wrong (it should be this), the boat is tiny and weird, the ice would be sheet-like, and Washington probably would have fallen down.
But a more meaningful critique is how the overall painting turns Washington from an underdog attacker into a conquering hero. Because his real crossing was part of a surprise attack, it was necessary for him to move secretly and quickly under the cover of night and rain — not like he was posing for a painting. By showing the crossing's significance in the painting's symbolism, Leutze's portrait gives us the wrong impression of just how risky and truly heroic a moment it was.
Iconic art can turn gritty history into stale myth
In artists' attempts to valorize a historic event, they paint over the grittier details. They can't be blamed for trying to render the mundane into the iconic, and that's probably why their paintings endure. George Washington probably picked his nose, but it shouldn't be part of his portrait.
Still, to modern viewers, these idealized portraits have made history a bit stale, cheesy, and kind of dumb. They've also given us a fundamentally incorrect impression of history, either due to the artist's license or our own misinterpretation. That's worth correcting. These events would seem more meaningful if they were depicted realistically, with all the dirty fingernails, bad lighting, and inartistic sacrifices they entailed.