Benjamin West and John Trumbull
Conflicting Interpretations, Paradoxical Images
John Trumbull: A Founding Father of American Art
Daniel C. Favata
John Trumbull can rightly be considered as one of the "Founding Fathers of
American Art." This complex, sometimes contradictory, always fascinating,
personality remains inextricably connected not only to the development of
American art, but also to the tumultuous history of the early American republic.
In the work of John Trumbull, his roles as professional artist, statesman,
and dilettante combine to create an intriguing encapsulation of American art,
politics, and society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Today, the art of perhaps no other individual has become so deeply ingrained
in American consciousness as that of John Trumbull. His Declaration of Independence,
together with scenes representing memorable moments from the American Revolution,
continue to be reproduced in countless texts, and have attained iconic status
in contemporary American culture.1
John Trumbull's involvement with American politics began upon his birth in
Lebanon, Connecticut, on June 6, 1756. His father, Jonathan, was repeatedly
elected representative to the Connecticut General Assembly, and in 1769 became
colonial governor.2 As governor, Jonathan Trumbull strongly lobbied
for colonial interests. In this childhood environment, therefore, John Trumbull
would have been frequently exposed to political discussions regarding the
colonies and their problematic relationship with England.3 While
his father was agitating for colonial rights, however, the youthful John Trumbull
was quickly discovering his aptitude for and pleasure in drawing: "My taste
for drawing began to dawn early.and for several years the nicely sanded floors.were
constantly scrawled with my rude attempts at drawing."4 As his
son matured, however, Governor Trumbull strongly urged him to abandon drawing,
believing that such an occupation was beneath his social station. In 1772,
John Trumbull enrolled at Harvard University, where his father intended him
to prepare for a ministerial or legal career.5 While traveling
to Cambridge, Trumbull visited the foremost artist in Boston at that time,
John Singleton Copley.6 Trumbull was warmly received and granted
a viewing of Copley's paintings, which made a deep impression on the aspiring
adolescent artist. Trumbull was equally astounded by the high quality of living
which the profession of an artist afforded Copley: "I remember his dress and
appearance--an elegant looking man, dressed in a fine maroon cloth, with gilt
buttons--this was dazzling to my unpracticed eye!"7 Copley provided material
evidence that, contrary to his father's opinion, the arts could augment one's
financial and social standing.
At Harvard, Trumbull thoroughly immersed himself in the fine arts, studying
paintings that were displayed throughout the university, and reading extensively
on art theory and practice. Trumbull also steeped himself in the Old Masters,
and his earliest surviving drawing, St. Paul Preaching in Athens (cat. 19)
is an apparent copy of an engraving after Raphael.8 Trumbull graduated from
Harvard in July 1773, the youngest member of his class at the age of seventeen,
becoming the first professional artist in America to receive a college degree.9
Upon his graduation, Trumbull returned to his hometown of Lebanon, Connecticut,
where he continued in the practice of painting. This early endeavor, however,
proved short-lived. With the outbreak of war in Lexington, Massachusetts on
April 19, 1775, Trumbull's father arranged for him to become an adjutant of
the First Regiment of Connecticut under the command of General Joseph Spencer.10
While serving in this capacity, Trumbull witnessed from a distance the Battle
of Bunker Hill. This is as close as Trumbull would ever come to any of the
military events that he later depicted.11 During the early summer of 1775, Trumbull's
map-making and drawing abilities enabled him to garner the attention of General
George Washington, for whom he briefly served as second aide-de-camp. Following
the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776, Trumbull was assigned to New
York and promoted to the rank of Colonel, a title that he relished and retained
throughout his life. At Fort Ticonderoga, Trumbull made his most significant
military contribution to the American Revolution. There, Trumbull developed
a plan for strengthening and defending Fort Ticonderoga (cat. 1), which won
praise from Generals Benedict Arnold and Horatio Gates.12 The following year,
however, Trumbull bitterly resigned from the army, after his expected military
commission arrived dated several months later than when he actually began
his duties.13 Throughout his life, Trumbull frequently reacted to such minor
slights with a similar sense of outraged indignation.
After returning home and meeting little encouragement from family to continue
in his profession as an artist, Trumbull elected to move to the artistically
fertile city of Boston. There Trumbull rented the former studio of John Smibert,
the first artist trained in the European grand manner to settle in America.14
As Trumbull later recalled,
I hired the room which had
been built by Mr. Smibert, the patriarch of painting in America, and found
in it several copies by him from celebrated pictures in Europe, which were
very useful to me.Mr. Copley had gone to Europe, and there remained in Boston
no artist from whom I could gain oral instruction; but these copies supplied
the place, and I made some progress.15
Since John Singleton Copley had departed for England, Trumbull trained himself
by diligently studying Smibert's copies of Old Master paintings by Raphael,
Rubens, and Van Dyck, which had remained in his studio.16
In 1780, Trumbull traveled to France, where he became briefly involved in
the management of a family mercantile venture. Finding little contentment
or success in this pursuit, Trumbull journeyed to England, where he presented
himself to Benjamin West, Painter of Historical Pictures to George III, and
one of the foremost artists in Britain.17 In Benjamin West's studio, Trumbull
received much training and encouragement.18 West placed Trumbull under the tutelage
of Gilbert Stuart, with whom he eventually developed a strong friendship.19
His education under Benjamin West had just begun, however, when Trumbull was
arrested as a suspected spy and imprisoned for almost eight months in Bridewell,
Tothill Fields.20 While Trumbull maintained that his arrest was in reprisal
for the execution of British Major John André,21 evidence suggests that he was
involved in clandestine activity.22 At Bridewell, Trumbull continued to practice,
studiously sketching a series of drawings from a book of male torsos most
likely provided by West (cat. 32-33).23 As Horace Walpole noted:
Mr. Trumbull.during his confinement,
amused himself with painting in which he had been regularly educated. Some
beautiful strokes of the above gentleman's pencil were admired in the royal
academy, without an idea that they came from the gloom of prison. Ingenuity
and fine taste, combined with judgment and accuracy procured him no inconsiderable
share of credit in his profession.24
Through the petitioning of Edmund Burke, and the surety of John Singleton
Copley and Benjamin West, Trumbull was freed from Bridewell Prison and subsequently
returned to America.25
In January 1784, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris,26 Trumbull returned
to London and resumed his instruction under West while enrolling in classes
at the Royal Academy (cat. 34-35). Although cognizant of his need for technical
improvement, in a letter to his brother, the twenty-eight year old artist
acknowledged his building frustration on seeing younger students produce superior
work with apparent great ease.27 While in England, and most likely at the behest
of West, Trumbull began to embark upon his most significant contribution to
the history of art: a series of paintings on the American Revolution.28
Throughout his entire career, Trumbull fretted at the perceived polarity
of his artistic vocation. Trumbull felt that mere portrait painters simply
flattered vanity, and were of little use to the higher goals of society. In
contrast, historical painters, those who depicted timeless subjects of eternal
morality, could be counted among the most virtuous of citizens.29 Many of Trumbull's
American history paintings fuse these two disparate elements. While they contain
numerous portraits, thereby appealing to the then prevalent American taste
for accurate countenances, the common nature of these portraits is transformed
through their association with a noble event.30 As Trumbull explained:
But to preserve and diffuse
the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves
in the history of man; to give to the present and future sons of oppression
and misfortune, such glorious lessons of their rights and of the spirit
with which they should assert and support them, and even transmit to their
descendants, the personal resemblance of those who have been the great actors
of those illustrious scenes, were objects which gave dignity to my profession...31
Indeed, Trumbull believed that he possessed a moral imperative to create
this series, as the only history painter personally involved in the American
Revolution.32 By 1786, Trumbull had finished the first two of his paintings
in this series, the Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill and
the Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec.
In his depiction of revolutionary events from the late eighteenth century,
John Trumbull is often compared to Jacques-Louis David, whose works, such
as The Oath of the Horatii (1785, Paris, Musee du Louvre), have become synonymous
with the French Revolution. In many of David's works, ancient heroes are shown
engaged in seemingly timeless actions that are immediately recognizable to
the viewer, who is then asked to apply these lessons of patriotism and self-sacrifice
to contemporary life. In contrast, Trumbull depicts contemporary events that
showcase honor and virtue. As Irma Jaffe notes, "Whereas David's figures are
symbols of the meaning of bravery, Trumbull's figures are concrete examples
of bravery."33 Despite the heightened sense of immediacy attached to the rendering
of a contemporary event, however, Trumbull's art lacks the vivacity and emotional
fervor of David's. This discrepancy can be partially attributed to the restrained,
aristocratic background of Trumbull, which would discourage unbridled emotion.34
Furthermore, the American Revolution lacked much of the horrific bloodshed,
and accompanying emotional frenzy, that was to characterize the later stages
of the French Revolution.35
Throughout his life, Trumbull remained abreast of political happenings, particularly
in the volatile social climate of Paris. In 1786, Trumbull traveled to Paris,
where he visited with Thomas Jefferson, who quickly became his museum companion
and subsequently urged Trumbull to undertake as a subject the signing of the
Declaration of Independence.36 In Paris, with Jefferson recounting the event
and providing an (inaccurate) sketch of the room,37 Trumbull began preparatory
compositions for The Declaration of Independence, which would prove
to be the most important work of his life.38 In this painting, Trumbull decided
to portray from life all signers, including those not present on July 4th,
as well as certain non-signers. For this reason, as Irma Jaffe notes, "the
painting's title is not The Signers of the Declaration of Independence but
simply The Declaration of Independence, underlining its timeless, ideational,
and symbolic character."39 Trumbull was scrupulous in maintaining that all portraits
in the Declaration should be true likenesses, and not idealized representations.
For deceased signers, a likeness was to be obtained from a prior portrait,
and if none existed, from an immediate family member. Therefore, between 1789
and 1793, Trumbull traveled across the eastern seaboard, collecting heads
for the Declaration and other history paintings.40 In paintings that had entered
a near state of completion, these portrait heads were often added directly
to the canvas. For less finished works, Trumbull created miniature oils and
pencil sketches (cat. 2, 5, 7) that served as guides for the later paintings
and are often counted among his best pictures.41
In 1793, John Trumbull was strongly affected by the death of Harriet Wadsworth,
a young and strikingly beautiful woman whom he had unsuccessfully courted
in 1790.42 Strongly disillusioned by this event, as well as by his lack of success
in selling engravings of his work in America, Trumbull abandoned painting.
From 1794 to 1800, Trumbull primarily served in a variety of diplomatic positions
in France and England, foremost among them as secretary to Chief Justice John
Jay for the Jay Treaty.43 During his stay in France, Trumbull also became entangled
in the "XYZ Affair," in which the French foreign minister Talleyrand sought
250,000 dollars from American diplomats to resolve difficulties in Franco-American
relations.44 After his sudden and unexpected marriage to the beautiful but troubled
Englishwoman Sarah Hope Harvey in 1800, a decision which shocked many of Trumbull's
friends, he resumed his career as a painter.45 Departing from England in 1804,
Trumbull relocated to New York, where he became quickly established as the
city's pre-eminent portrait painter. While in New York, Trumbull was also
appointed director, and later president, of the American Academy of the Fine
Arts, a position which he used primarily to further his own reputation and
career.46 Growing concerns about Trumbull's eyesight, already damaged from a
childhood accident, led him to return to England in 1808 for medical treatment.
Despite his growing reputation, however, Trumbull was able to find little
work, largely due to mounting political hostilities between Britain and America
that would culminate in the War of 1812. With the advent of peace, Trumbull
was able to secure safe transport back to New York, arriving in September
In 1816, Trumbull envisioned a project that was to consume much of his artistic
efforts for the next decade, and which he considered the grandest accomplishment
of his career. With the move of the United States capital to Washington in
1800, a new Capitol building was being erected which would require decoration.
Due to the War of 1812, two wings of the Capitol previously constructed had
been badly damaged, and the central core remained to be built. Trumbull hoped
to receive a commission to adorn this central space of the United States Capitol
with his American history series. As Trumbull was quick to observe, he was
the best, and perhaps only, artist capable of faithfully rendering scenes
from the American Revolutionary period.47 Enlisting the support of prominent
political figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Trumbull's proposal was approved.
On January 27, 1817, Congress passed a resolution employing Trumbull "to compose
and execute four paintings commemorative of the most important events of the
America revolution, to be placed, when finished, in the Capitol of the United
States."48 For his subjects, Trumbull chose life-size replicas of the Declaration
of Independence, and the Surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, October
19, 1781 and added the Resignation of Washington, December 23, 1783 and the
Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, October 16, 1777. All four paintings
share a similar iconographic program, which emphasizes the courage and high
moral conduct of America's founding fathers.49 After much delay and squabbling
over their placement, these painting were installed in the Rotunda in November
Despite Trumbull's crowning achievement in the Rotunda, two of his most important
contributions to the history of art remained. In 1831, distraught over the
financial uncertainly that had plagued his entire life as an artist, Trumbull
sold many of his works to Yale College in return for an annuity of one thousand
dollars a year. As Trumbull reasoned,
Funds.began to diminish,
and I sold scraps of furniture, fragments of plate, &c. Many pictures remained
in my hands unsold, and to all appearances unsaleable. At length the thought
occurred to me.that some society might be willing to possess these paintings.
I thought first of Harvard College, my alma mater, but she was rich, and
amply endowed. I then thought of Yale--although not my alma, yet she was
within my native state, and poor.51
Through this bequest, Trumbull established at Yale the first college art
gallery in America. Furthermore, in 1837, at the age of eighty, Trumbull began
work on his Autobiography, which would become the first written by an American
artist. As with his engravings, however, Trumbull's book met with little enthusiasm
upon its publication.52
John Trumbull died on November 10, 1843. His death was announced at the National
Academy of Design by prominent artist Samuel F.B. Morse, who eulogized Trumbull
as one "whose name and works are amongst the earliest associations of our
childhood, and whose fame is interwoven, not merely with the history of the
arts of design, but also with the political history of the country."53 Fordham
University is very fortunate to have an unusually rich collection of drawings
by this remarkable American Artist. These drawings demonstrate the wide expanse
of Trumbull's skill as an artist, while also revealing the breadth of his
intellect and the intensity of his patriotism.
1 Irma B. Jaffe, Trumbull: The Declaration of Independence, London,
1976, p. 17.
2 Irma B. Jaffe, John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American
Revolution, Boston, 1975, p. 6.
3 Jaffe 1976, p. 23.
4 John Trumbull, Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters by John
Trumbull from 1756 to 1841, New York, London, and New Haven, 1841, p. 5.
5 Helen A. Cooper, John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter,
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, 1982, p. 2.
6 Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley in America: 1738-1774,
7 Trumbull, p. 11.
8 Jaffe 1975, p. 15.
9 Theodore Sizer, "John Trumbull, 'Patriot-Painter' in Northern
New York," New York History, v. 31, no. 3, 1950, pp. 283-84.
10 John Caldwell and Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque, American Paintings
in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 1, Princeton, 1994, p. 199.
11 Helen A. Cooper, "Trumbull, John" in The Dictionary of Art,
vol. 31, ed. Jane Turner, New York, 1996, p. 391.
12 Cooper 1982, p. 3. For a detailed discussion of this plan, see
Jaffe 1975, pp. 27-28; Trumbull, pp. 31-32. See also Irma B. Jaffe, "Fordham
University's Trumbull Drawings: Mistaken Identities in The Declaration of
Independence and Other Discoveries," American Art Journal, v. 3, no. 1, 1971,
13 Cooper 1982, p. 3.
14 Jaffe 1975, p. 39. See also Henry Wilder Foote, John Smibert,
Painter: With a Descriptive Catalogue of Portraits and Notes on the Work of
Nathaniel Smibert, New York, 1969.
15 Trumbull, pp. 49-50.
16 Jaffe 1975, p. 40.
17 Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and His American Students, National
Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1980-81, pp. 71-73.
18 John Wilmerding, The Genius of American Painting, New York,
1973, p. 82. For a complete discussion of Benjamin West's influence on Trumbull,
see Kathryn Moore Heleniak's essay, "Benjamin West and John Trumbull," passim.
19 Jaffe 1975, p. 46.
20 Jaffe 1976, p. 25.
21 Trumbull, pp. 316-17.
22 See Jaffe 1975, pp. 47-50.
23 Ibid., p. 51.
24 Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England (1760-95),
5 vols., New Haven, 1937, V, p. 112, as quoted in Cooper 1982, p. 6.
25 Jaffe 1975, pp. 51-52.
26 November 1783
27 Irma B. Jaffe, "Two Trumbull Drawings," American Art Journal,
v. 17, no. 3, 1985, p. 78.
28 Given the subject matter, West could not undertake the series
himself due to his close connection with the king. Charles F. Montgomery and
Patricia E. Kane, American Art: 1750-1800, Towards Independence, New Haven,
Yale University Art Gallery, 1976, p. 98.
29 For a discussion of modern history painting, see Jaffe 1975,
pp. 72-77. Also Edgar Wind, "The Revolution of History Painting," Journal
of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, v. 2, 1938, pp. 116-27.
30 Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque, "Trumbull's Portraits," in Cooper 1982,
31 John Trumbull, "Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 1789," in John W.
McCoubrey, American Art: 1700-1960, Sources and Documents, Englewood Cliffs,
1965, pp. 40-41.
32 Jules David Prown, "John Trumbull as History Painter," in Cooper
1982, p. 37.
33 Jaffe 1975, p. 95.
34 As Trumbull noted in his Autobiography, "David was naturally
a kind and warm-hearted man, but ardent, sometimes even violent, in his feelings.and
had brought himself to the full belief, that the blood of individuals was
of no more value than water.This gave to his public life the imprint of a
ferocious monster." Trumbull, pp. 228-29.
35 Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Revolution, Chicago, 1987, pp.432-440.
36 Irma B. Jaffe, "John Trumbull Views the French Revolution: An
Unpublished Letter by the 'Patriot-Artist' of the American Revolution," Bulletin
of Research in the Humanities, 1979, p. 450.
37 Jaffe 1975, p. 104.
38 Irma B. Jaffe, "Trumbull's The Declaration of Independence:
Keys and Dates," American Art Journal, v. 3, no. 2, 1971, pp. 41-49.
39 Jaffe 1975, pp. 106-7.
40 Theodore Sizer, The Works of John Trumbull: Artist of the American
Revolution, New Haven, 1950, p. 7.
41 David Meschutt, "Portraits of Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary War
General," American Art Journal, v. 17, no. 3, 1985, pp. 36-37.
42 For a history of Trumbull's futile relationship with Harriet
Wadsworth, see Jaffe 1975, pp.147-149; 160-166.
43 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, 1982, pp. 18-27. See also Jaffe 1975, p. 170-72.
44 Cooper 1982, p. 11. Also Jaffe 1975, p. 179-182.
45 For a discussion of Trumbull's marriage to Sarah Hope Harvey,
see Jaffe 1975, pp. 190-205.
46 Elected vice-president in 1808; president from 1817 until his
resignation in 1836. As Carrie Rebora notes in "Sir Thomas Lawrence's Benjamin
West for the American Academy of the Fine Arts," American Art Journal, v.
21, no. 3, 1989, p. 22, Trumbull modeled his presidency after West's at the
47 Jaffe 1975, p. 234.
48 Trumbull, p. 262.
49 The transcendent, timeless, and eternal message of these paintings
was evident even to many British tourists visiting the Capitol, who commented
favorably upon the universal values embodied in the actions of both American
and British soldiers. See David B. Dearinger, "British Travelers' Views of
American Art before the Civil War," American Art Journal, v. 23, no. 1, 1991,
50 Egon Verheyen, "John Trumbull and the U.S. Capitol," in Cooper
1982, pp. 260-271. Also Jaffe 1975, pp. 250-279, and Jaffe 1976, pp. 100-106.
Artist. These drawings demonstrate the wide expanse of Trumbull's skill as
an artist, while also revealing the breadth of his intellect and the intensity
of his patriotism.
51 Trumbull, p. 288.
52 Jaffe 1975, p. 286.
53 Samuel F.B. Morse, quoted in Thomas S. Cummings, Historic Annals
of the National Academy of Design, Philadelphia, 1865, p. 175, as cited in
Jaffe 1975, pp. 287-88.
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