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Painter of the Revolution

May 2024
16min read

The canvases of John Trumbull, sometime soldier, reluctant artist, have given us our visual image of the colonies’ struggle to be free

At the end of October, 1797, the year V of the French Revolution, a 41-year-old American artist named John Trumbull was stranded in Paris. The government was in peril and the capital was near chaos. With business at a standstill, poverty was general; restless, quick-tempered crowds roamed the streets. For a foreigner, the atmosphere was dangerous.

But Trumbull, though he was no stranger to Paris— in fact, he was well connected there—could not get a passport to leave. He went to see General Charles C. Pinckney, then in the city as one of the American treaty negotiators at the time of the XYZ affair, when three agents of Talleyrand (Messieurs “X,” “Y,” and “Z”) sought a bribe as the price ot doing business with the French Directory. Pinckney told him, “My friend, I know not what to advise; we have no means ot aiding you, we cannot even protect ourselves.” Next Trumbull went to Talleyrand himself, at whose home he had been a dinner guest a few days before. But Talleyrand seemed to have the impression that Trumbull had come to discuss the XYZ affair and did not even give him a chance to mention his real mission.

Desperate now, and aware that he was under police surveillance, Trumbull sought out his friend and fellow artist, the famous Jacques Louis David, whom he knew to be close to the regime. When Trumbull happened to mention that he had at his hotel his painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill, David said: “That pic- ture is worth a multitude of passports.” He told Trumbull to go and get it; together they would face the police. At the ministry of police David unrolled Trumbull’s canvas and said, “I have known Mr. Trumbull these ten years. … I answer for him; he is as good a revolutionist as we are.” Trumbull got his passport.

David had exaggerated Trumbull’s sympathy for the French Revolution; actually, its excesses had disgusted him, and he had shuddered at David’s “horrid encomium.” Hut in one sense, the Frenchman was right: 1 rumbull was a “good revolutionist.” Hc had fought honorably, if briefly, in his own country’s war tor independence. Even more important, in the years since then he had systematically set himself to portraying its great actors and re-creating its high moments in a series of canvases which even now recall the Revolution’s vigor and romance.

It is on these paintings that John Trumbull’s fame has survived l’or over 150 years. They have their limitations: Trumbull never achieved greatness as a painter, though at his creative best he approached it. Yet in such powerful, concentrated works as the Battle of Bunker’s Hill , the Declaration of Independence , and the Capture of the Hessians at Trenton , Trumbull has placed us on the spot at decisive moments, and in his portraits and miniatures he has shown us what the architects of our independence looked like. And, since he lived at a time when visual recording was scanty, it Is through John Trumbull’s eyes that generations of Americans have recaptured the tumult and glory ol their country’s beginnings. “It has been given but to a few, in the long history of Western painting, to become the creators of the visual symbols of an epoch,” says Theodore Sizer, the distinguished modern critic of Trumbull’s work. “Our image of Martin Luther is derived from the paintings and prints by his friend, Lucas Cranach. Henry VIII and his court live today through the meticulous recordings of Hans Holbein, the Younger. … In like manner, our visual conception of the events surrounding the birth of this republic arc due to the documentation of a certain Connecticut Yankee.”

John Trumbull lived a very long time, perhaps too long. He was born in 1756, and he died 87 years later, with the country at the threshold of the Mexican War. In this time he saw the first ten Presidents take office, and lie was on friendly terms with six of them; in fact he knew most of the great men of the age. It was a wonderfully exciting and creative period, but Triimbidl never really took advantage of it. For his greatest tragedy was that his talents reached a definite peak by the time he was 40 and then gradually declined for the next 47 years.

In addition, Trumbull was out of step with the times—a pure-bred eighteenth-century gentleman, he had the misfortune to linger into the age when Jacksonian democracy was coming to full flower. Verylikely he had spent too much of his time abroad. He lived in Europe for 20 of his 87 years, either in pursuit ol his profession or on assignment lor his government, first as secretary to John Jay, later as one of the commissioners trying to settle the terms of the Jay Treaty. He became so absorbed by European culture that he neglected to discover the new one being erected at home. A dedicated Federalist to the very end, he never could quite understand the world ol Jellerson and Jackson.

Trumbull was singularly unfortunate in the timing of his European sojourn. In 1780 he was in London studying under that many-splendored tutor of American artists, Benjamin West, when the English spy, Major André, was captured and executed. In retaliation, the British sent I rumbull to jail, where he luxuriated for seven months. (Luxuriate is the correct word: lie was able to rent a large, coinlortalile room in the jailkeeper’s quarters and have his food sent in i’roin a nearby public house.) After West had interceded with King George III and Trunibull himself had written to Edmund Burke, he was finally released. Burke, who took an interest in Ti umbull, advised him to study architecture, pointing out that a new country would require buildings before it needed paintings to decorate them.

But except for designing a church in Lebanon [see page 50], Trunibull did not follow Burke’s advice. Seventeen years later, another accident of timing—the dangerous episode in revolutionary Paris—befell Trunibull, and then the outbreak of the War of 18 ia caught him again in London, where he was interned for the duration, with disastrous consequences for his personal fortune. Assuredly, Trumbull had a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

John Trumbull sprang from fiercely patriotic stock and he himself (despite his posturings) was always an impassioned believer in political freedom. Rut there was nothing in his family background to point him toward an artistic career. His grandfather was a well-todo merchant, as was his father, who was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1710. John’s father was also Revolutionary governor of Connecticut and the only governor to give his unqualified support to the patriots’ cause: in the early years of the war Connecticut was Washington’s chief source of supplies. John’s mother, Faith, was the great-granddaughter of John Robinson, a stern, highly independent old Puritan who had been the Pilgrims’ pastor during their sojourn in Holland and who had come with Brewster to Plymouth. (Later on, when Robinson was excommunicated, it was said that lie refused to recogni/e the sentence and that when the communion was administered he would take his own bread and wine to church with him and celebrate the rite by himself.)

John Trumbull was born on June G, 1750, in Lebanon, the youngest of six children. He had two sisters, Faith and Alary, and three brothers, Joseph, Jonathan, Jr. (later, like his father, governor of the state), and David. IH health made John’s childhood wretched; as an infant he suffered convulsions, and when he was five he fell downstairs and bruised his forehead so severely that a few years later he was unable to see out of his left eye. Monocular vision apparently did not hinder his early work, but the eye bothered him more and more as he got older; it was probably one of the reasons for the marked deterioration of his later efforts.

In spite of his handicaps, John was a brilliant student. Entering Harvard as a junior at the age of fifteen, he graduated a year later, the youngest member ol his class. As an undergraduate, he visited Copley’s studio in Boston, began copying art masterpieces, and for the first time seriously entertained thoughts ol becoming an artist. He became indeed the first college graduate in America to take up the career of professional painter.


By 1773, however, when he graduated, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and England had become increasingly strained, and you’ig TrumbuH put art from his mind. He went to Härtend, where he organixed a group of militant young men into a militia unit. From there it was but a skip and a jump to George Washington’s side. Un July 27, 1775, he was made an assistant aide-de-camp to the General. Ostensibly, lie got the job on merit, by creeping through high grass to get a phin of the British fortifications at Boston Neck. Actually, a little kick entered in: a British deserter stumbled over Trumbull and handed him a rude sketch of the entire works. “That,” Trumbull later commented with dry understatement, “probably led to my future promotion.”

All his life Trumbull was to trade on a military reputation based less on solid fact than on his idealized conception of it. Invariably he presented himself as a wartime intimate of Washington, though he served only nineteen days on the General’s staff. Wherever he went in later years he was known as “Colonel Trumbull,” although he had little rieht to the title; he had actually received a colonel’s commission, but he did not hold it long. After his brief tour with Washington he was named adjutant to General Horatio Gates and later accompanied him to Albany. There Trumbull distinguished himself by demonstrating to General Benedict Arnold and Colonel Anthony Wayne that Fort Ticonderoga would be untenable unless Mount Defiance, a 750-foot eminence southwest of the Tort, were occupied and fortified. Hut despite Trumbull’s advice it was the British who finally occupied Defiance, one of General Burgoyne’s aides remarking: “Where a goat can go and where a man can go, he can drag a gun.”

Soon after this young Trumbull—he was only twenty —resigned his commission in a huff because the Continental Congress had dated it three months later than he expected. “A soldier’s honour forbids giving up the least pretension to rank,” he declared pompously—and added, “I lay aside my Cockade and Sword, with a Determinalion, fixed as Fate , never to resume them until I can do it with Honour.”


He saw no further chance for honor until 1778, when General Sullivan was about to make an effort to take Newport, Rhode Island, from the British. Trumbull joined Sullivan as volunteer aide-de-camp, and though the attack failed when the blockading French licet was swept away in a hurricane, he turned out to be of some help alter all. Trumbull’s line eye lor color literally saved an American unit. As recounted in his autobiography, the event makes stirring reading, even il the dialogue is somewhat stilted. Ordered to tell Colonel Edward Wigglesworth to withdraw lrom Windmill Hill, Trumbull rode to the summit ol the hill.

“ ‘Don’t say a word, Trumbull,’ cried the gallant commander. ‘I know your errand, but don’t speak; we will heat them in a moment.’

“ ‘Colonel Wigglesworth, do yon sec those troops crossing obliquely from the west road towards your rear?’

“ ‘Yes, they are Americans coming to our support.’

“ ‘No, sir, those arc Germans: mark, their dress is blue and yellow , not buff; they are moving to fall into your rear, and intercept your retreat. Retire instantly—don’t lose a moment or you will be cut off.’ ”

The obstinate Wigglesworth finally did withdraw his unit—and just in time, lor the onrushing troops were in fact Hessians.

And that was about the extent of Irumbull’s military career. All told lie had served about a year and a hall in various useful capacities with the Continental Army between 1775 and 1777, plus the brief tour of duty with Sullivan.

Yet, limited as his first hand acquaintance with the Revolution was, it was to furnish him with the inspiration for almost all the great paintings on which his reputation is based. His artistic career began in 1780, when he decided to go to England and learn something about art from Hcnjamin West, the teacher of sudi Americans as Charles Willson Pcale, William Dunlap, Afatthcw Pratt, Ralph Earl, and Washington AHston. It was possible, during the milder-mannered eighteenth century, for private citizens ol belligerents to travel between warring countries in ways no longer imaginable. Young 1 rumbull, then 24, sailed in Afay, stopping first in Paris, where he met Rcnjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Adams’ fourteen-year-old son, John Quincy; then, bearing a letter of introduction to West from Franklin, he traveled to London. He arrived with no samples of his work, and West ordered him to paint a copy of Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia . Trumbull did so, with another of West’s students, Gilbert Stuart, helping his colleague mix the paints. West seemed impressed with the result.

“Mr. Trumbull,” he said, “I have now no hesitation to say that nature intended you lor a painter. You possess the essential qualities; nothing more is necessary but careful and assiduous cultivation.”

The cultivation was interrupted by Trumbull’s imprisonment on “suspicion of treason” in the André affair, and after his release he was admonished to leave England within thirty days and not to return until peace was restored. When he returned to America, however, he had a difficult time convincing people —including himself—that he should be an artist. His mother wanted him to be a clergyman, his father wanted him to be a lawyer, his friends proposed a business career. All agreed that art was an inferior pursuit lor a gentleman. Trumbull himself wavered. Throughout his life doubts pursued him; once he told a young artist, ”Î would have been a beggar had I wholly relied on paintings lor my support.”

Nevertheless, despite the interruptions and the misgivings, the next sixteen years, beginning with Trumbull’s return to London in 1784, were years of remarkable achievement. By 1786 he reached his absolute peak as an artist, finishing Bunker’s Hill, Death of General Montgomery , and Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar .

Much as he admired accurate portraiture, neither these nor any of Trumbull’s other famous battle scenes were painted from life. Bunker’s Hill and Death of General Montgomery were executed in the quiet of Benjamin West’s London studio, the former being finished seven years after the battle. When the battle occurred, Trumbull had been four miles away, viewing the action from across Boston Harbor.

Yet in all his work he strove mightily for accuracy. His usual practice was to compose the pictures in miniature first, leaving the faces of the figures blank. Then, if the subjects were still alive and available for sittings, the missing likenesses were painted from life. If not, Trumbull relied on memory, on descriptions by the subject’s friends, or on prints or family portraits. The likeness of the central figure in Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton , for example, was arrived at by studying the General’s sons.

But it is in Trumbull’s most ambitious work, the Declaration of Independence , that one can best gauge the lengths to which the artist would go to ensure reality. The idea for the painting was originally suggested by Thomas Jefferson, a good friend in Trumbull’s early years until Trumbull began to bridle at what he considered Jefferson’s drift toward “radical atheism.” But in Paris, in September of 1786, the two were still very much on speaking terms, and Jefferson not only conceived the painting but also gave Trumbull information and advice, even sketching for him from memory a floor plan of fndependence Hall.

To obtain the portraits of all the signers of the Declaration, the artist went to considerable trouble. He painted Jefferson in Paris and John Adams in London. Most of the others he did in the United States between 1789 and 1794, visiting many eastern and southern cities carrying his small canvas in a special receptacle in his carriage. Altogether he painted 36 from fife (four of whom had not actually signed the document but had taken a prominent part in the debates), nine from portraits by other artists, and two from memory. Another subject, Benjamin Harrison, had died without leaving any portrait of himself, so Trumbull substituted a likeness of Harrison’s son. (The boy assured the artist it was perfectly all right, since his mother had always said he was the image of his father.)

In addition to his battle scenes, Trumbull is remembered for some of his portraits. His favorite subject —and his personal idol—was George Washington, of whom he did some 34 likenesses. The admiration, apparently, was mutual; in 1791 the President wrote to Lafayette: “His pieces so far as they are executed, meet the applause of all who have seen them. The greatness of the design and the masterly execution of the work, equally interest the man of capacious mind, as the approving eye of the connoisseur.”

A year later Trumbull did his favorite Washington portrait, the full-length likeness of the General leaning on the saddle of his white horse with the Battle of Princeton in the background. Trumbull’s description of his concept of the painting is a striking word picture of Washington:

“I undertook it con amore (as the commission was unlimited,) meaning to give his military character, in the most sublime moment of its exertion—the evening previous to the battle of Princeton; when viewing the vast superiority of the approaching enemy, and the impossibility of again crossing the Delaware, or retreating down the river, he conceives the plan of returning by a night march into the country from which he has just been driven, thus cutting off the enemy’s communication, and destroying his depot of stores and provisions at Brunswick.

“I told the President my object; he entered into it warmly, and, as the work advanced, we talked of the scene, its dangers, its almost desperation. He looked the scene again, and I happily transferred to the canvas, the lofty expression of his animated countenance, the high resolve to conquer or to perish.”

The possibilities are that if Trumbull had stuck firmly to his profession, he might have matured as an artist. But his insecurity was such that he was forever looking for an escape. In 1794 it was diplomacy; he accompanied John Jay to London and stayed on as one of the American commissioners negotiating the Jay Treaty. At other times it was mercantile projects, none of which ever worked out.

In Trumbull’s personal life, too, everything seemed to go wrong. In 1789, when he was 33, he fell in love with a lovely but frail young woman, Harriet Wadsworth, who came from Hartford, just thirty miles from Lebanon. Apparently she rejected his love; very soon thereafter consumption carried her off. She was only 24.

After this unhappy event Trumbull discovered a pretty but slatternly servant girl, Temperance Ray, working in the household of his brother Joseph. In a revealing and gravely sardonic letter written in 1799 to his close friend, James Wadsworth, a cousin of the Hartford Wadsworths, Trumbull confessed the consequences of their liaison:

“When I was last in America an accident befel me, to which young Men are often exposed;—I was a little too intimate with a Girl who lived at my brother’s, and who had at the same time some other particular friends; —the natural consequence followed, and in due time a fine Boy was born;—The number of Fellow labourers rendered it a little difficult to ascertain precisely who was the Father; but as I was best able to pay the Bill, the Mother using her legal right, judiciously chose me. …”

Temperance named the boy John Trumbull Ray and obtained a judgment against Trumbull. It was then that he wrote Wadsworth, enjoining him to see that the boy was properly brought up and educated.

At length, when he was 44, Trumbull married 26year-old Sarah Hope Harvey, in London. She was a beautiful girl but of mysterious lineage, and no one was ever quite able to fathom why Trumbull married her. There was plenty of gossip, however; when one of the guests at the wedding ceremony was bold enough to ask the bridegroom just who the woman was, the Colonel replied icily, “Mrs. Trumbull, sir.” Whatever her background and whatever her faults (in later years they were to be a source of severe embarrassment to him), it is certain that Trumbull loved her until the day she died.

Sarah never bore her husband a child. The Trumbulls took John Trumbull Ray with them to London in 1808, representing the boy as their nephew. In 1811, at the age of nineteen, the lad joined the British Army and fought in Spain under Wellington. Eventually he found out from his father the exact circumstances of his birth and never went back to America, living out his life in Europe, a sore disappointment to his father. He once wrote Trumbull telling him, among other things, of his marriage and the birth of a child. The elder Trumbull did some furious accounting and sent back an angry note.

“You cannot have arrived from India sooner than the middle of March … you were married about the 16th of May … the Child was born in the middle of November. Now as it is only Eight months from the day of your arrival, and only Six from your Marriage to the birth of the Child—while the ordinary period of pregnancy is Nine , the inference is obvious and unfavorable.”

It may be argued that Trumbull was hardly in a position to write such a letter, but while it is true that he was something of a prig, he had an excuse for his petulance. Things were going from bad to worse for him. When war between England and the United States broke out in 1812, he was living in London, and he soon discovered that nobody wanted a portrait painted by an American. By the time he returned home in 1816, he was heavily in debt.

His financial distress was relieved temporarily when President Madison, with the approval of Congress, commissioned him to paint four historical pictures in the rotunda of the new Capitol. The scenes Madison selected were the Declaration of Independence (Trumbull turned out an undistinguished replica of the original), the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown , and the Resignation of General Washington . It took Trumbull eight years to complete the task; the government paid him $32,000, enough to settle his debts, and that was all.

Meantime, his domestic situation was not as happy as it might have been. During their previous stay in America, between 1804 and 1808, Mrs. Trumbull had not gotten on well with her American in-laws. Now, back in New York, she was lonely and had few friends. She turned to drink, more than once embarrassed her husband, and finally became a confirmed alcoholic.

She died in 1824, tne year Trumbull finished the rotunda paintings. He was embittered further by a battle with other artists. He had helped found the American Academy of Fine Arts and had served as its president from 1817 to 1836, but now the rising generation of artists was in revolt against him. In their minds, he catered too much to the wellborn. In 1825 Trumbull’s younger rivals, led by Samuel F. B. Morse, founded the National Academy of Design, which eventually forced the demise of Trumbull’s Academy.

The revolt was not confined to professional artists. The American public as a whole became indifferent to Trumbull’s later works, and it was only partly because they were not up to the standard of his earlier ones. The truth was that after winning its independence America had begun to change, to become more aware of itself, to glory in its own prosperity and spirit of expansion. American painting did not at first reflect the change. As James T. Flexner points out in The Light of Distant Skies :

“The first major case of frustration in American art was the first gentleman, John Trumbull. … Painting became a refuge for aristocratic hopes that had been wounded by the Revolution, had scrambled back into the saddle during the Federal period, had been unhorsed by Jefferson, lacerated by the embargo, outraged by the War of 1812, and were now in danger of being overwhelmed by new forces marching in from the West behind that plebeian on horseback, Andrew Jackson.”

European-trained “gentleman painters” like Trumbull sought to impose standards of artistic taste from above, but they failed. The revolt began in literature, where American writers like Cooper, Thoreau, and Bryant launched the Romantic movement. Despite the views of men like Trumbull, the movement was soon reflected in painting, which began to reject European style and subjects and to celebrate America.

John Trumbull was too old to get into the mainstream himself, but he did not fail to recognize the strength of the current. In 1825, coming upon some paintings by young Thomas Cole, founder of what was to become the “Hudson River School” of American art, Trumbull exclaimed: “This youth has done what all my life I have attempted in vain!”

Trumbull himself had switched to large-scale religious pieces and heroic and literary compositions. The results were abysmal, the mediocre products of a faltering old age. One contemporary critic suggested, not unkindly, that Trumbull would have been better off had he burnt all of his later works.

In 1832 Trumbull found a way out of his need for money and recognition. He offered his pictures to Yale University in exchange for an annuity of $1,000 a year. (Friends, officials, and professors of the university agreed to guarantee the annuity for a period of six years. This seemed safe enough, considering the fact that Trumbull was then 75 years old. But he lived on for twelve years, to the considerable discomfiture of the guarantors.) Trumbull also asked that he be allowed, at his own expense, to build a tomb for himself and his wife under the art gallery. Yale accepted the offer, and the Trumbull Gallery became the earliest college art museum in America.

Five years later Trumbull went to New Haven to live with his nephew by marriage, the noted scientist Benjamin Silliman. There he spent the last years of his life writing his autobiography. He died peacefully on November 10, 1843, and was buried, as he had requested, beside his wife and beneath his full-length portrait of Washington.

Trumbull was never a modest man; a preacher some years after Trumbull died characterized him unforgivingly as a “man who seldom erred by an excess of meekness.” But he did present the Republic a portrait of itself in all the agony and drama of its birth, and because of this great legacy posterity has not failed him.


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