At birth, few would have expected John Trumbull to live to age one, much less eighty-seven. Yet the infant born suffering multiple seizures daily slowly overcame that condition, and went on to spend a lifetime trying also to overcome his father’s censure of painting as a demeaning profession. In the process, he painted some of the nation’s most iconic images of both the American Revolution and the country’s Founding Fathers.
Born in the inland market town of Lebanon in 1756, the 6th and last child of prosperous merchant and future war governor Jonathan Trumbull and Faith Robinson Trumbull was by illness and birth-order a child set apart. Closest to his sister Faith, who was 13 years his senior, John admired and tried even as a child to imitate her artwork, which hung in the family parlor.
Drawn passionately to art and with recognizable talent, John had, by the time he was to take his Harvard entrance exams (at 15 ½) decided to forego college to study with the Boston artist John Singleton Copley. His father was having none of it. “My father,” the artist later remarked drily, “had not the same veneration for the fine arts that I had.” This was an understatement. Trumbull wanted this son to become a minster or a lawyer, certainly not a socially marginal painter, and he never wavered in this conviction. So the restively obedient son went to Harvard – where he got into trouble for setting fire to an outhouse on a Sunday – and graduated last in his class.
At the start of the American Revolution, John’s Governor- father arranged for him to go to Boston as the adjutant officer for the first Connecticut regiment. There, his drawing ability came to the attention of George Washington – who desperately needed maps of British defenses. John joined Washington’s staff as an aide-de-camp. After the British evacuated Boston, Trumbull joined General Horatio Gates staff at Fort Ticonderoga, but resigned as an issue of honor after Congress post-dated his commission as Colonel.
Trumbull returned to Lebanon, painting Copley-style portraits of family members in a new effort to convince his father of the usefulness of his work. Failing to do so, he went to Boston, ostensibly as an agent for the family business. He spent most of his time, however, painting copies of European masters. In 1780, the elder Trumbull sent him on a diplomatic mission to Paris, where he met Benjamin Franklin. There, in part through Franklin’s efforts, the artist secured permission to embark on a carefully monitored journey to England to study with the celebrated painter Benjamin West. West admired the young man, and confirmed Trumbull’s belief that he had been born to paint. A few months after his arrival, though, in revenge for the execution of British spy John André in America, Trumbull – as a former American officer and son of a rebellious governor – was arrested, imprisoned, and expelled from England for the duration of the war.
Trumbull served the remainder of the war working with his brother as a provisioner to the Continental army in the Hudson River valley. At war’s end, he sought one final time to convince his father that painting was a worthy profession, by pointing out in a carefully drawn up argument the honors paid to artists in the glory days of Greece and Athens. His father was completely unconvinced. “You appear to forget Sir,” his father responded, “that Connecticut is not Athens.”
Breaking with his father, John returned to England and Benjamin West’s studio, beginning in earnest the career that would ultimately bring him the recognition he sought. West became a kind of father figure to Trumbull, mentoring him through the conception of at least 21 complex historical narratives, many battle scenes from the American Revolution. West declared Trumbull’s Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill the best painting he had seen. Thomas Jefferson saw the works and encouraged Trumbull’s project of recording the new nation’s most momentous moments.
Trumbull returned to America in 1789, and for four years he traveled the country painting images of people associated with the Declaration of Independence. He sold subscriptions for engravings of his future American paintings and solicited support from Congress. These efforts were less than successful, however, as by then a politically divided America had set aside patriotism for partisanship.
Needing money, Trumbull served on several diplomatic missions (including the Jay Treaty commission to settle postwar issues with England), not returning to painting again until 1800. Private commissions for portraits then proved plentiful, but Trumbull, influenced by his father’s low opinion of it, recoiled at being a mere portrait painter, feeling that portrait-painting for the wealthy was little more than vanity-serving craft-work.
Not until the end of the War of 1812, after the British had burned the nation’s Capitol, did Trumbull finally receive the stature for historical painting he had devoted his life to attaining. Today in 1817, as part of the effort to fully restore the Capitol building, Congress authorized the President to commission Trumbull to paint four life-size paintings of the most important events of the American Revolution for hanging there.
Trumbull chose what he believed were the Revolution’s four turning points: the surrender of General Burgoyne’s entire army at the Battle of Saratoga; the Declaration of Independence; the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown; and Washington’s voluntary resignation of his command at the war’s conclusion. It took him six years to complete the $32,000 project, but with their hanging in Capitol rotunda, Trumbull had finally proved to his by now long-dead father that his painting could earn him a place in history.
“American Painter John Trumbull Born – Today in History June 6,” connecticuthistory.org
Architect of the Capitol, “John Trumbull”
“John Trumbull: Visualizing American Independence,” Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art
John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776,” Yale University Art Gallery
John Trumbull, Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters of John Trumbull, From 1756 to 1841, archive.org