82nd & Fifth: “Compassion” by Carrie Rebora Barratt

If you said, “Who would you want to meet from the past?” I would love to meet John Trumbull. The painter, who was the son of a Connecticut governor, at his core: an aristocrat. The courtesy world was paramount– even on the battlefield. Every one of his pictures has an agenda. The Sortie Made by the Garrison at Gibraltar, a battle fought between the Spanish and English. And portrays one moment, the victory of General George Elliott, the commander of British troops, with all of his allies against Don Juan de Barboza, the vanquished leader of the Spanish, dying on the ground in front of him. General Elliott reaches his hand out in a very compassionate gesture to the man who he’s just defeated. If you didn’t get it, that the generals had a kind of a code of conduct for the battlefield, well there it is, in microcosm. The would-be aristocrats, the military leaders, each and every one of these men is identifiable in stark, polite contrast to the teeming tower of men fighting, this great rag-tag bunch of hooligans, basically –the burning sky behind them. Trumbull wants us to focus on the leaders, the looks on their faces. Elliott’s face, in sort of Roman profile, is absolutely composed. It’s kind of emotionless, a kind of stoicism that was the key attribute of the modern leader. Here’s this man, ivory pants without a smudge, as if he just walked out onto the battlefield. Trumbull was a great fan of classical statues. George Elliott is based on the Apollo Belvedere. Barboza is the Dying Gaul except that instead of his hand falling to the ground, his hand rises up. The hands of Elliott and Barboza almost meet, as if in a Michelangelo. It’s sort of The Birth of Adam: in death comes rebirth. And there really is something personally that I take from this: I think the people that I admire most in this world are people of compassion and calm, regardless of what’s going on around them.

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