We next turn to John Trumbull, the third and last of our “Patriot Painters. Trumbull became America’s first great history painter.
Trumbull, Self Portrait, 1777
John Trumbull was a Connecticut Yankee. Unlike Peale and Stuart he was born to wealth and high social position. His father, Jonathan Trumbull, was a prosperous merchant who also served as Governor of Connecticut from 1769 to 1784. Jonathan Trumbull was, in fact, the only colonial governor to support the Revolutionary cause.
Trumbull, Governor and Mrs. Trumbull, the painter’s parents, painted c. 1780
In addition to his socially prestigious and relatively wealthy background, John Trumbull was the only one of our three painters to graduate from college.
The privileged young man received an excellent education, chiefly from tutors, an education steeped in history and the classics. He also evidenced considerable talent in drawing, notwithstanding his having lost the sight in one of his eyes in a fall down a flight of stairs when he was quite young.
The Trumbull House in Lebanon Connecticut
However, when John approached his father with a proposal that he be allowed to train as an artist under Boston’s John Singleton Copley, the leading American portraitist of the late colonial era, the Governor adamantly refused on the grounds that painting was not a fit occupation for a gentleman.
John Singleton Copley, John Hancock (1765)
Trumbull did manage, however, to visit Copley’s studio several times during his years of study at Harvard College and was deeply influenced by what he saw there. He graduated in 1773, the year before Copley fled to England (see previous article “John Singleton Copley’s Dilemma”), so Trumbull had ample opportunity to visit and observe the great painter at work.
When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, John Trumbull volunteered to serve under his father’s close friend, General Joseph Spencer. At the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, in June 1775, Trumbull was serving as an adjutant to General Spencer, who was stationed at nearby Roxbury, from where the would-be painter viewed the battle from a hill behind the army’s encampment.
His first history painting, completed eleven years later, would be based based on the most dramatic incident of that battle, the death of the American commander, patriot leader General James Warren.
Trumbull, The Death of General Warren in the Battle of Bunker Hill (1786)
Trumbull also served briefly on George Washington’s staff while the army was headquartered outside Boston. Here we see a Trumbull painting of Washington in uniform, dating from 1780.
Trumbull, George Washington (1780)
Later Trumbull served as adjutant to General Horatio Gates, Washington’s great rival. Of the three painters under consideration, his wartime experience was by far the most extensive. In late 1778, however, the proud Trumbull resigned his commission, claiming that less deserving men were being promoted ahead of him, the same complaint that led Benedict Arnold to switch sides.
Returning to Connecticut, he painted both his famous self-portrait and one of his parents (both seen above), as well as portraits of other members of his family. Here we see Trumbull’s handsome painting of his older brother, Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. and family, completed in this period. This older brother would later serve both as Governor of Connecticut and as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, evidencing the continued political influence of the Trumbull family.
Trumbull, Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. and family, c. 1779
John did not remain in Connecticut long, however. First he moved to Boston briefly, and then went on to Europe, where he remained for the next several years.
Some confusion attaches to the Trumbull story at this point. His 1779 departure for Europe was undertaken supposedly as a business agent for the Trumbull family, but he was almost certainly also acting as an agent for the U.S. government carrying secret information to Benjamin Franklin, the American minister in Paris.
David Martin, Benjamin Franklin (1767). This pre-revolutionary portrait of America’s premier diplomat, Benjamin Franklin by English painter David Martin (1737-1797) is perhaps the quintessential rendering of this complicated and multi-faceted patriot leader who spent so many years representing American the colonies in England and then the new nation in France.
But there was also an artistic dimension to Trumbull’s trip to Europe, for a family friend, the Englishman John Temple had arranged for the young man to go to London to study with the American expatriate painter Benjamin West.
Benjamin West, The Studio of Benjamin West
It took a high degree of courage and determination to do what Trumbull now did. Son of the only colonial governor to support the Revolutionary cause, a former rebel officer who had served on the staff of George Washington, and a man who had just carried secret messages from the rebel administration to its minister in France (our principal ally in the war), Trumbull now proposed to become an art student in the British capital.
West greeted Trumbull cordially and placed the young American under the care of another of his students, Gilbert Stuart. Stuart and Trumbull formed a close and lasting friendship, notwithstanding their contrasting personalities and artistic preferences.
However, Trumbull’s studies at West’s studio were cut short by his arrest on suspicion of being a spy. The young painter spent eight months (the last months of the war, as it happened) in Bridewell Prison. But it should be emphasized that his imprisonment was more of a detention than an incarceration. The painter’s financial resources insured that he was relatively well treated. Trumbull was allowed, for example, to rent a neatly furnished room on the ground floor of the home of the prison keeper, to order his meals from a local tavern, to walk in the prison keeper’s garden at will, to have visitors, and to spend his time reading and painting.
Trumbull and Stuart (a combined effort), Trumbull at Time of his Imprisonment (1781)
London’s Bridewell Prison, where Trumbull was help for eight months in 1780-81
In addition, West sent Trumbull some canvasses to copy. Here we see a handsomely executed copy Trumbull made while at Bridewell Prison of West’s own copy of Correggio’s St. Jerome of Parma.
Trumbull’s copy of Correggio’s masterpiece St. Jerome of Parma, painted while Trumbull was imprisoned at Bridewell (1781).
In due course Trumbull was released on bail, for a substantial 400 pounds payment, a sum guaranteed by the painters Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley. Trumbull left Bridewell on July 6th, and with the end of fighting that fall the charges against him were quietly dropped.
After a short visit home to Connecticut, however, Trumbull opted to return to England to continue his artistic training. The first London work following his return was a portrait of his friend Sir John Temple, the man who had recommended him to West.
Trumbull, Sir John Temple (1784)
Trumbull soon after conceived the notion of executing a series of paintings of scenes from American history. It was at this point that he entered upon the profession of history painter. The first of the series, a work produced in 1785, was the Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill (seen above).
What makes Trumbull’s history paintings unique was the great lengths he went to accurately represent each figure in these often complex works. The second notable history painting that Trumbull executed, The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, was completed in 1786, and then less than a year later, The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton. Trumbull’s work reached maturity with these three great paintings documenting the demise of three great military chieftains. It should be emphasized, however, that the completion of each work, owing to their complexity, required much time and effort.
Trumbull, The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec (1786)
Trumbull, The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton (1787)
Trumbull was also producing skilled portraits during this period, as exemplified by this painting of the American merchant Patrick Tracy, dating from 1786, an elderly Massachusetts warehouse owner. Tracy rests his hand on an anchor and stands on a beach before crates and barrels, a realistic representation of reminiscent of the work of John Singleton Copley.
Trumbull, Patrick Tracy (1786)
Soon after Trumbull moved to Paris, he formed an intimate friendship with the American minister to France, Franklin’s successor in the French capital, Thomas Jefferson.
Trumbull, Thomas Jefferson (1788)
Trumbull had arrived in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution, and like most Americans was at first quite sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, anticipating that our Revolutionary War allies were about to take the same direction that had been taken by us. When their revolution instead turned into a blood bath, Trumbull condemned it. He would also eventually turn against his friend Jefferson, who continued to defend the French notwithstanding the radical direction their revolutionary struggle took.
But for the moment at least the two continued to be close. At one point Jefferson went so far as to offer to make Trumbull his private secretary.
Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence (1787-1820).
Also it was Jefferson who suggested the topic of Trumbull’s next, and single best-known work, his great historical painting, The Declaration of Independence, a work in which Jefferson (as author of that document) figured so prominently. Here we see the five members of the drafting committee (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Livingston, and Sherman), presenting they first draft of the document to Continental Congress for consideration, adoption, and eventual signing. This massive project, in fact, took the artist from beginning to end some 23 years to complete for his goal was to accurately paint each figure included in the painting.
The first individual portrait that Trumbull did for this singularly ambitious historical work was that of John Adams, who was serving as American Minister to Great Britain.
Trumbull, John Adams (1783)
In the meantime the painter travelled extensively in Europe with Jefferson and other Americans, including the distinguished Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, who would later rebuild the U. S. Capitol building after its partial destruction in the War of 1812.
T-19. The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown (1787-1828)
By 1787, Trumbull was back in London where he began work on another ambitious historical painting, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. As in the case of The Declaration, he began collecting portraits of the French officers who were involved, including Rochambeau and Lafayette. This work also took him decades to complete, since he prepared individual studies of all the principal participants depicted in the work.
Trumbull, Declaration of Independence (detail of drafting committee members)
Which brings us to the important subject of the historical accuracy of Trumbull’s works. While he took pains to ensure that the images of the individuals were as accurate as he could make them, he nonetheless exercised, as artist’s are wont to do, a very broad artistic license with respect to composition, showing little if any concern for historical accuracy.
In the case of the Declaration of Independence, for example, Trumbull totally misrepresented the historical circumstances surrounding the signing, for the great document was not inscribed on a single occasion, as is inferred by his painting, but rather was signed by individual Congressmen over a number of weeks. Moreover there was no ceremony of presentation to the Congress, as depicted in Trumbull’s canvass.
The Surrender of Cornwallis (detail)
In the case of the Surrender of Cornwallis, we have an even more egregious distortion of history. The proud Washington was offended by the refusal of the humiliated British commander Lord Cornwallis’s to participate in the ceremony of surrender, and thus he too sent a subordinate, his second in command, General Benjamin Lincoln. Washington was actually several hundred yards away when the surrender occurred. If Trumbull had been wedded to historical accuracy, he would have placed two subordinate officers in the painting, thereby degrading the symbolic value of the work.
Trumbull justified these historical distortions on the grounds that universal truth (that is to say symbolic truth) was more important than historical accuracy.
Trumbull, The Sortie from Gibraltar (1789)
A number of factors now drove Trumbull back to America. First, his position in the British art world was insecure. The fact that he was producing paintings that celebrated British defeats did not endear him to the British public or to its patrons of the arts. He tried to correct the bad impression by executing an historical painting based on a heroic episode from recent British history, The Sortie from Gibraltar, completed in 1789. Unfortunately the receipts from the exhibition of this painting were rather modest, and the painting itself little praised, forcing Trumbull to the conclusion that British hostility was irreversible.
Trumbull, Capture of the Hessians at Trenton (1786-c. 1828)
Trumbull returned to the United States in 1789 in the hopes of finding 500 subscribers willing to pay $200 apiece (a considerable sum back then) for a set of thirteen engravings of his paintings of Revolutionary War scenes. One of these works, Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, seen above, was one of the works he proposed to engrave, but Trumbull found the American public little interested in his engravings project, and was ultimately forced to abandon the idea.
Trumbull, Washington at Verplanck’s Point (1790)
Trumbull’s most notable portrait of the 1789 to 1794 period was his Washington at Verplanck’s Point, a work completed in 1790, which now hangs in the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. It stands, by virtue of its subject matter, half way between a portrait and historical painting.
Trumbull, Self-Portrait of the Artist with his Sketch Book (1801)
When opportunities to secure commissions declined in the troubled international climate of the 1790s, the politically well-connected Trumbull shifted the focus of his career from painting to diplomacy. In 1794, he accepted appointment from the Washington administration as secretary to John Jay who the United States was sending to England in the hopes of settling the many disputes stemming from British dominance of the sea lanes and interference of American ships and cargoes. These negotiations resulted in the signing of Jay’s Treaty in 1795, one of the most controversial diplomatic agreements in American history. Following ithe narrow ratification of this treaty by the Senate, Trumbull was appointed to a commission to adjudicate claims in connection with the capture of ships and the expropriation of cargoes, an assignment that provided him with employment for several more years.
Trumbull, Mrs. John Trumbull (Sarah Hope Harvey Trumbull), c. 1816-24.
The year 1800 represented an important turning point in Trumbull’s life, for in that year he married an English woman of modest background—Sarah Hope Harvey, and the newlyweds took up residence in London.
Trumbull, Alexander Hamiilton (1805)
In 1804, however Trumbull and his wife decided to take up residence in America. They had planned to settle in Boston, but Gilbert Stuart had recently established himself there with a promise of fashionable patronage from the city’s wealthy citizens. Not wishing to compete with his friend, Trumbull instead chose New York City. There he was commissioned to paint a series of portraits of prominent citizens to hang in New York City Hall, one of them being his iconic portrait of Alexander Hamilton, the engraving of which appears on the ten dollar bill.
The Trumbulls remained in America only briefly, however. The poor economy of the period and his English wife’s entreaties (the Trumbull family it seems disapproved of Sarah) prompted their return to England in 1808, where they remained for an additional nine years, Trumbull now earning his living chiefly as a portrait painter.
Trumbull returned to America permanently in 1817 with a view to winning the commission from Congress to decorate the Rotunda of the Capitol Building with works depicting scenes from the nation’s early history. He faced no competition for this commission, for he was universally recognized as the only American capable of carrying out this challenging task.
Thus on January 13, 1817, Congress adopted a resolution authorizing President James Monroe to employ painter John Trumbull to compose and execute a painting commemorating the Declaration of Independence (a reworking of his smaller canvass on that theme), as well as three other works for the ground floor of the contemplated Rotunda. The vote was 150 in favor to 50 opposed.
Trumbull executed four giant life-size paintings (each one 18 by 12 feet in dimension) over the next several years, two on political themes and two on moral themes. The topics would be, in addition to the Declaration of Independence, The surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, the so-called turning point in the revolutionary struggle; the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, marking America’s final victory over the Great Britain; and, the resignation of Washington as commander of the Revolutionary Army, symbolizing the peaceful transfer of power from military to civil authority.
Trumbull, the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, with a chart identifying each individual included in this painting.
Trumbull, The Resignation of Washington (1824)
Trumbull received a total of $40,000 for these three massive canvasses, this being the largest commission ever awarded an artist in this country up to that point. He executed the four paintings between 1817 and 1824.
Exterior view of the Capitol Building as it appeared in the 1820s, the work of Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, a close friend of Trumbull.
The Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, showing the four Trumbull paintings.
Not until 1828 were they placed in the completed Rotunda. Later four additional works by other painters were added. Trumbull very much wanted to receive the commission for the other four panels, but for political reasons, Congress refused his application. In the opinion of art historians only one of the four additional works authorized for the Rotunda, John Vanderlyn’s Christopher Columbus Landing in America (1847), measures up to the standards of Trumbull’s earlier works.
Engraving of a Trumbull self-portrait dating from 1833, when the painter was in his mid-seventies
In 1817, Trumbull, age 60, was notified of his election to the Presidency of the American Academy of Fine Arts, based in New York City, a post he would occupy until 1836. Trumbull ran the academy with an iron hand and on very conservative principles. His unyielding attitude eventually led to such a level of dissatisfaction among the younger painters of the academy that some broke away and formed a competing institution, the National Academy of Design. The conservative Trumbull, a champion of classicism, was thus something of a failure as an art educator. His rigidly classical American Academy was obliged to suspend operations in 1841 just five years after his retirement as its president, while the competing, more accommodating National Academy of Design flourished and, in fact, still exists.
The Trumbull Gallery at Yale, a structure designed by Trumbull to house his art collection which he turned over to the college in 1831 in exchange for a lifetime annuity of $1,000.
Trumbull’s last major contribution to American art was the contract he entered into in 1831, under the terms of which his extensive collection of paintings was turned over to Yale College in exchange for an annuity of $1,000 for the remainder of his life. Trumbull, who was a talented architect as well as painter, designed the building in which this collection would be housed, the Trumbull Gallery, pictured here.
John Trumbull died in New York City in 1843, at the age of eighty-seven. One of his biographers describes this principal painter of the American Revolution as the chief, the most prolific, and most competent visual recorder of [America’s heroic age].