John Trumbull: A Founding Father of American Art
Conflicting Interpretations, Paradoxical Images
Benjamin West and John Trumbull
Kathryn Moore Heleniak
Associate Professor of Art History
The American painter, Benjamin West (1738-1820), played a crucial role in
the development of John Trumbull's career: as his teacher, as the artist who
introduced "modern history painting" and subsequently encouraged Trumbull
to depict scenes from the American Revolutionary War which brought Trumbull
his greatest fame; and lastly, as a model of a successful American-born artist.
Thanks to the generosity of George E. Doty, Fordham University possesses several
paintings by Benjamin West which provide an invaluable complement to its collection
of Trumbull drawings.1
In the eighteenth century the American colonies were not a fruitful environment
for the arts. There were no art schools; there were no museums; only a few
European-trained artists made their way across the ocean and they rarely stayed
long. It was from this far-from-promising world that Benjamin West emerged.
West came from "the wilderness" of Pennsylvania (something he liked to stress
with his students and European friends).2 He developed rudimentary painting
skills in America before traveling to Italy in 1760, settled in London in
1763, and eventually reached the pinnacle of English art in 1772 when he became
the official history painter for King George III and in 1792, President of
the Royal Academy of Arts over which he presided with the exception of one
year until his death in 1820.3 If West with his humble American origins could
become a successful professional painter, so too could the more privileged
American painter, John Trumbull. West was his most important mentor.
Trumbull arrived on West's doorstep in London in 1780. Unlike West who had
little formal education, Trumbull was a graduate of Harvard as was his father
before him. Indeed, Trumbull came from an elite American family; his father
was Governor of Connecticut and a supporter of the American rebellion. Trumbull
through family connections had served as General Washington's aide-de-camp
in 1775. Afterwards he was briefly a colonel in the Continental Army from
which he resigned in a huff when his official military commission was postdated
by several months. Though tempted by family mercantile concerns, he committed
himself to a career in painting and made his way to London in 1780 in the
midst of the American Revolutionary War. West, befriended and employed by
King George, welcomed this ex-colonel in the service of the American rebels!
That Trumbull turned to West as a teacher is not surprising. In his youth,
he had already copied prints after West's paintings.4 By 1780 he was one of
a stream of young American artists who approached West for advice and instruction.
It was West who had urged John Singleton Copley to come to London to develop
his career and he welcomed him when he arrived in the mid-1770s.5 Charles
Willson Peale, Ralph Earl, and Matthew Pratt had already benefitted from West's
instruction (the latter's experience documented by his charming painting of
West instructing students in his studio [The American School, 1765, Metropolitan
Museum of Art]).6 When Trumbull arrived in London, Gilbert Stuart was West's
reigning American trainee. He and Trumbull shared West's studio amicably.7
After Trumbull, American artists continued to flock to West for instruction.
William Dunlap, Washington Allston, Thomas Sully, Samuel F. B. Morse, among
others, all benefitted from West's kind and generous manner. As William Dunlap
explained: "He had no secrets or mysteries, he told all he knew."8 West had
the gift of inspiring his students, improving their skills while ensuring
that they retained their individuality, not reducing them to mere clones of
A few months after Trumbull's arrival in London he was imprisoned in Tothill
Fields, Bridewell on charges of treason.9 At some risk to his own reputation,
West did not abandon the young artist. Instead, he supplied him with materials
which allowed Trumbull to continue his artistic studies while in prison.10
Trumbull wryly inscribed drawings of a male torso which resulted from these
prison exercises, "Tothill Fields Academy" (cat. 32-33). More important, West
courageously asked the King to intercede on Trumbull's behalf. While the King
declined to free the artist, he assured West that Trumbull's life would be
spared if legal proceedings came to that. This was no small concession, since
Trumbull argued that he was imprisoned not for any treasonous activity but
in retaliation for the earlier execution of Major John Andre as a spy in America.11
West's intervention saved him from the same possible fate.
After Trumbull's release from prison in June 1781 (following West's one hundred
pound contribution towards his bail),12 he sailed for America only to return
to West's studio in January 1784, shortly after the conclusion of the American
Revolutionary War.13 At this point West's example had a profound effect upon
him. West had pioneered a new category of art in 1770: modern history painting.14
According to artistic theory dating from the Renaissance, history painting
was the highest category of art. It involved subjects not only from ancient
history and mythology, but also from the bible and other elevated literature.
The key was to depict uplifting human behavior which embodied virtue. Anything
too contemporary was deemed too familiar and hence was considered inappropriate
for grand history painting-- the fear being that (according to the old saying)
familiarity breeds contempt or, at least, fails to instill veneration. In
1770 West chose to defy this custom with his painting, The Death of General
Wolfe (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), which depicted the last
moments of the British hero, General Wolfe, who died in the course of a victorious
battle in Canada during the recent French and Indian Wars. West insisted upon
depicting General Wolfe in the brilliant red military garb of contemporary
British soldiers, not in timeless classical drapery, and upon placing the
military "martyrdom" in a recognizable Canadian setting. It was a bold and
revolutionary portrayal since it countered traditional academic theory which
argued that dignity and veneration required the distancing of contemporary
events in universalizing allegory and costume. Despite misgivings on the part
of the English art world and the King himself when West announced his intentions,
the painting was a great success. It inspired many artists, including Trumbull,
to embrace such modern themes in the late eighteenth century. When he returned
to London in 1784, he decided with West's enthusiastic encouragement and guidance
to immortalize the recent American struggle for independence in a series of
West had hoped to take up this subject himself to the point of requesting
information and material from one of his old students now back in America,
Charles Willson Peale.15 But he eventually gave up the plan, surely a wise
decision given his official position as history painter to the King. How could
he paint a theme which would focus upon the loss of the King's American colonies?
Instead he encouraged his American student John Trumbull to treat the subject.16
And Colonel Trumbull, who proudly witnessed and participated in the American
Revolutionary War, was only too happy to undertake the work. As he explained
to a friend in 1786, "I am now ... employ'd writing, in my language, the History
of our country."17 The first two paintings, The Death of General Warren at
the Battle of Bunker's Hill, 1785-86 (Yale University Art Gallery), the only
scene for which he was an eye-witness, and The Death of General Montgomery
in the Attack on Quebec, 1786 (Yale University Art Gallery, fig.2, see preparatory
drawing, cat. 8), followed the model of West's General Wolfe, reinforced by
the recent example of Copley's enormously successful painting, The Death of
Major Peirson (Tate Britain, London), exhibited in 1784, celebrating a British
hero dying in a contest against the French, which itself looked back to West.
All featured modern dying heroes in Christ-like poses, slain on the field
of battle, sacrificing their lives for their country.
West had prepared Trumbull to compose these ambitious, spirited scenes by
having him copy his Death of General Wolfe (location unknown) and another
large scale painting, The Battle of LaHogue (Trumbull's copy, 1784/5, Metropolitan
Museum of Art). The lessons Trumbull learned there were carried over into
his earliest Revolutionary War scenes.18 It was also West who "with the kindness
of a father" encouraged Trumbull to have his paintings engraved in order to
increase his fame and fortune, as West himself had done so successfully with
engravings after his own works.19 Of course, West couldn't guess that the
American public would fail to embrace Trumbull's engravings with similar enthusiasm.
West also attempted to improve Trumbull's patronage in another way. Realizing
that the American Revolutionary War subjects would scarcely appeal to the
British public, Trumbull reported that, "Mr. West, whose friendship is inexhaustible,
has proposed to me a subject of the History of this Country...," Britain's
recent triumph over the Spanish at Gibraltar, a subject flattering to British
military pride and valor.20 It was just the kind of subject that brought fame
to West and to his American compatriot Copley. West hoped to bring similar
benefits to Trumbull. Trumbull produced a stunning painting, The Sortie made
by the British Garrison at Gibraltar (1789, Metropolitan Museum of Art), but
it didn't capture the British public's interest21--though it wasn't for lack
of West's generous, well-intentioned advice to Trumbull.
Years later Benjamin West continued to exercise considerable influence upon
Trumbull. Disappointed with the American patronage for his Revolutionary War
series, Trumbull abandoned his painting career and took on various diplomatic
chores in the 1790s.22 When he returned to painting in the early nineteenth
century, it was now West's religious subjects (many undertaken for the king's
proposed private chapel at Windsor) that especially attracted his admiration
and emulation.23 Pictures like West's biblical scene, Jacob and Laban of 1798
( Fordham University Library)24 with their serious themes, solemn expressions,
and rhetorical gestures in the tradition of such baroque artists as Poussin
and LeBrun inform Trumbull's similar works.25 In 1817 when Trumbull received
the historic government commission to decorate the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol
with four scenes from the American Revolution, he returned once more to West's
example. As Irma Jaffe noted, the composition of Trumbull's Surrender of General
Burgoyne at Saratoga, 16 October 1777 (1821, United States Capitol Rotunda,
Washington, D.C., and c.1821-1831, Yale University Art Gallery, see
preparatory landscape drawing, cat.14) was dependent upon West's series of
scenes from the life of Edward III for the Audience Chamber at Windsor Castle,
particularly his Edward the Black Prince Receiving John, King of France, Prisoner,
after the Battle of Poitiers, painted in 1788 when Trumbull was working in
West's studio.26 Fordham University has a small replica by West of
this colorful painting.
When Trumbull was elected President of the American Academy of the Fine Arts
in 1817, a New York institution which he led for nearly two decades, he must
have felt that he was assuming West's mantle in America. And in some respects,
he was. But the American Academy never had the same position in American society
that the Royal Academy of Arts did in England. It was a struggling institution
without adequate financial resources and without much direction; it was primarily
a gentlemen's club for art patrons rather than a forum for artists. For example,
despite the "Academy" in its title, it never sponsored a proper school for
artists. Instead, its art collections, including sculptural casts imported
from Europe, were available for viewing only at inconvenient hours for young
would-be artists. When students complained, Trumbull is reported to have expressed
no sympathy. Such inadequacies along with other complaints eventually led
to the founding of the National Academy of Design in 1826, a rival art institution
strictly under the control of artists, from which Trumbull remained aloof.27
In his failure to encourage the American Academy of the the Fine Arts to provide
adequate instruction to young artists, Trumbull separated himself from the
important legacy of Benjamin West, whose historical importance is closely
associated with his role as a kind, generous teacher who gave warm support
and encouragement to art students, particularly to his American students,
including John Trumbull. West's encouragement of Trumbull, and his faith that
America would be the next great place for the development of art, were crucial
to Trumbull's own hopes and to those of the other young American artists who
studied with West. These sentiments were expressed by West in a letter to
Trumbull of 1805:
it will be in their [Americans']
power to do great things with respect to the Arts and this is the moment
for them to start....Her youth have the Fire of genius-and her men have
the thinking of Philosophers, it is the combination of those qualities which
have rendered the Greek name atternal [sic] in all that was refined in the
higher Excellences of art--and in my Opinion there has not existed a people
so likely to be their rivals as the Americans.28
West was correct in his assessment that America was poised to make significant
contributions to the arts. But sadly, patronage for Trumbull and the others
was woefully insufficient in late eighteenth and early nineteenth America.
This situation tempered Trumbull's attitude and contributed to his pessimistic
and prickly relationship with young American art students.29 Indeed, Trumbull
would have had to wait well into the twentieth century before West's optimistic
prediction concerning the arts in America would be fulfilled. John Trumbull
and West's other American students laid the foundation for this development.
Trumbull, who always valued West's ideas, would have been pleased to see his
mentor's opinion finally confirmed.
1 These paintings are discussed and illustrated in Helmut von Erffa and Allen
Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West, New Haven & London, 1986, cat nos.
75, 230, 249, and pp. 309-10, pp. 334-35.
2 William Dunlap, The Diary of William Dunlap (1766-1839), N.Y., 1931, v.
2, p. 543: "He would remind students that he had taught himself in the wilderness,
by observing nature...."
3 Von Erffa and Staley, and The Baltimore Museum of Art, Benjamin West American
Painter at the English Court, June 4-August 20, 1989, essay text by Allen
Staley, are valuable scholarly sources for the study of West's career. West's
presidency of the Royal Academy was challenged in 1804; the position was held
briefly by James Wyatt in 1805. West described this painful episode in a letter
to Trumbull: Theodore Sizer, "Benjamin West to his former pupil, John Trumbull,"
Yale University Library Gazette, v. 25, no. 3, Jan. 1951, pp. 104-109.
4 Irma B. Jaffe, John Trumbull Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution,
Boston, 1975, p. 31. The biographical information in this paragraph derives
from this source.
5 New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Singleton Copley in America,
1996, pp. 39-40.
6 Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and His American Students, National Portrait
Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1980-81; also Susan Rather, "A Painter's Progress:
Matthew Pratt and The American School," Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 28,
1993, pp. 169-83.
7 Jaffe, p. 43.
8 Dunlap, Diary, v. 2, p. 543.
9 Jaffe (ch. 4) discusses the mysterious circumstances surrounding this charge
and Trumbull's defense.
10 Jaffe, p. 51; also John Trumbull, Autobiography of Col. John Trumbull Patriot-Artist,
1756-1843, ed. Theodore Sizer, New Haven, 1953, p. 70. West lent Trumbull
his copy of Correggio's St. Jerome to study and probably books from which
he copied drawings.
11 Trumbull, p. 63. The plot of Benedict Arnold to surrender West Point was
discovered by the capture of Major Andre of the British Army who was subsequently
12 Trumbull, p. 72.
13 Trumbull, p. 84.
14 Edgar Wind, "The Revolution of History Painting,"Journal of the Warburg
and Courtauld Institutes, v. 2 ,1938, pp. 116-27; Charles Mitchell, "Benjamin
West's Death of General Wolfe and the Popular History Piece," Journal of the
Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, v. 7, 1944, pp. 20-33. See also Ann Uhry
Abrams, The Valiant Hero: Benjamin West and Grand-Style History Painting,
Washington, D.C., 1985.
15 Evans, p. 86; and Arthur S. Marks, "Benjamin West and the American Revolution,"
American Art Journal, v. 6, Nov. 1974, pp. 15-35..
16 Jules David Prown, "John Trumbull as History Painter," in Helen A. Cooper,
John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter, New Haven, Yale University
Art Gallery, 1982, p. 30.
17 John Trumbull to Andrew Elliot, March 4, 1786, Massachusetts Historical
Society, quoted by Prown, "John Trumbull as History Painter,"in Cooper, p.
18 Evans, p. 86 and Jaffe, p. 70.
19 Trumbull, p. 90. For West's success with his engraving, see Alan D. McNairn,
"Benjamin West and the death of General Wolfe," Magazine Antiques, v. 150,
no. 5, Nov. 1996, pp. 678-85. William Woollett's engraving of The Death of
General Wolfe which first appeared Jan.1, 1776 was re-issued repeatedly.
20 Quoted in Trumbull, p. 90, footnote 17: letter from John Trumbull to his
brother, Jonathan, May 24, 1786.
21 Jaffe, p. 131. The painting was privately praised but neglected by the
press when it was exhibited in London. Trumbull did three versions of the
subject, giving one to West in gratitude. Jaffe points out that West's advice
in this instance was not entirely altruistic. She suggests that it was a means
of retaliating against Copley who had recently won a public commission (over
West) and had begun a painting on the Gibraltar theme.
22 Richard B. Morris and Ene Sirvet, "The Artist as Diplomat: John Trumbull
and the Jay Mission to England," Columbia Library Columns, v. 31, no. 2, Feb.
1982, pp. 18-27.
23 John Dillenberger, Benjamin West: The Context of His Life's Work with Particular
Attention to Paintings with Religious Subject Matter, San Antonio, 1977. The
King eventually withdrew his support for West's series, The History of Revealed
Religion, and the completed paintings were returned to West.
24 See von Erffa and Staley, cat. no. 249, illustrated p. 295.
25 Trumbull encountered Charles LeBrun's influential study of human expression
while in Boston, before he studied with West (Jaffe, p.17). But West would
have encouraged Trumbull's appreciation of Poussin and Le Brun. West's own
paintings reflect his study of these earlier masters. See Michael H. Duffy,
"West's Agrippina, Wolfe and the expression of restraint," Zeitschrift fur
Kunstgeschichte, v. 58, no. 2, 1995, pp. 207-225. Prown ("John Trumbull as
History Painter,"in Cooper, p. 39) stresses the links between Trumbull's late
religious themes and West's production. Theodore Sizer described West's influence
as "lasting and powerful" in Trumbull, p. 248, footnote 3.
26 Jaffe, p. 246.
27 For a discussion of Trumbull's role in the American Academy of the Fine
Arts, see Jaffe, ch. 15. Also Carrie Rebora, "Sir Thomas Lawrence's Benjamin
West for the American Academy of the Fine Arts," American Art Journal, v.
21, no. 3, 1989, pp. 18-47.
28 Sizer, "Benjamin West to his former pupil...", p. 107.
29 Jaffe, p. 271.
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