Storming a Redoubt at Yorktown by French painter Eugene-Louis Lami was completed in 1840. The oil painting takes up an entire wall in the Old Senate Chamber in the Virginia State Capitol. Virginia-born philanthropist William Corcoran gave the painting to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1878.
The foreground and middle ground of the painting express the confusion, energy, and destruction of battle. Bodies, mostly of the British soldiers, litter the ground, and Lami depicts the closeness of hand-to-hand combat. British, American, and French soldiers can be seen fighting with their bayonets. The background of the painting shows an expanse of sky. The only thing that intrudes on this expanse is the soldier putting up the American flag. This highlights the victory of the Americans in the battle and, ultimately, the war.
The painting depicts an important event that occurred during the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781. The allied French and American forces needed to capture two British redoubts, small earthen forts, enabling them to finish digging a trench to approach the British stronghold. On the night of October 14, 1781, four hundred French soldiers stormed Redoubt No. 9, and four hundred American soldiers under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton stormed Redoubt No. 10. They captured both redoubts within thirty minutes, using only their sabers and bayonets. The decisive action by the American and French forces assured them the victory at the Battle of Yorktown. There was no hope left for the British who on the night of October 16 tried to evacuate Yorktown by sailing across the York River to Gloucester Point. A windstorm ruined their plan and they surrendered on October 19. Fighting continued after the British surrender at Yorktown, but this was the last meeting between British regulars and the Continental army.
The artist, Eugene-Louis Lami, was born in Paris, France, on January 12, 1800. He studied under Horace Vernet and Antoine-Jean Gros at the École des Beaux-Arts, France's national art school. In 1824, Lami debuted at the Salon, the official art exhibition in Paris. Storming a Redoubt at Yorktown was painted toward the end of a time of prolific military painting for Lami. After this work was completed, Lami began focusing on the court of King Louis-Philippe of France and bourgeois society. When Louis-Philippe abdicated and moved to Great Britain in 1848, Lami followed him. While in Britain, Lami focused on painting with watercolors. He returned to France in 1852 but never again enjoyed the level of popularity he had had during Louis-Philippe's reign. Lami died in Paris on December 19, 1890.
1. What event does this painting depict?
2. What is a redoubt?
3. Who is the artist?
1. Consider the artist. Why would he choose to paint this moment in the Battle of Yorktown? Why would he choose to focus on an American military scene instead of a French one, such as the French Revolution or the Battle of Waterloo?
While this painting successfully portrays the energy of the Battle of Yorktown, the action at the center of the painting, American troops capturing General Cornwallis, is not historically accurate. Cornwallis remained at his headquarters within the town during the battle and negotiated the British surrender to the Americans with George Washington through a series of messages on October 17, 1781.
Batson, Barbara C., and Tracy L. Kamerer. A Capital Collection: Virginia's Artistic Inheritance. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2005.