John Trumbull

John Trumbull (1756-1843) was the first American painter to produce a series of history paintings; they depict scenes of the Revolutionary War.

John Trumbull, the son of a Connecticut lawyer who became governor of the colony, was born on June 6, 1756. He took some private painting lessons from John Singleton Copley before entering Harvard, from which he graduated at the age of 17. During the Revolutionary War, Trumbull served for a while as aide-de-camp to Gen. Washington but resigned in 1777. In 1780, in connection with mercantile ventures which soon failed, Trumbull sailed to France. He began studying painting with Benjamin West in London, where he was arrested, presumably because of antirevolutionary sentiment in England, and was forced to leave the country.

In 1784 Trumbull returned to England and resumed his studies with West. Trumbull went back to America in 1789. Thomas Jefferson offered to make him his private secretary, promising that little time would be taken from his painting, but Trumbull, not wishing to be tied down, refused. In 1793 he had a violent falling-out with Jefferson, which was damaging to Trumbull's career later.

Trumbull painted in a manner reminiscent of Peter Paul Rubens, and his work is sometimes overburdened with incidental details. He executed a series of 12 paintings dealing with the Revolutionary War, including the Death of Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec and the Battle of Bunker's Hill (both 1786) and the Capture of the Hessians at Trenton (1786-1797). He hoped to reap a profit through the sale of engravings of his history paintings, and initial reactions were encouraging.

Because of the scarcity of currency following the war, Trumbull's prints did not sell as well as he had hoped; only 344 were sold. Discouraged, he went to London in 1794 as secretary to John Jay and stayed on there until 1804, working occasionally as a portrait painter. As a portraitist he had great financial success while in New York from 1804 to 1808. Jefferson was president of the United States at the time, and Trumbull could not hope for a lucrative Federal commission, so he went back to London in 1808 and remained there until 1816, when he returned to New York.

In 1817 Trumbull finally achieved success as a history painter. Congress commissioned him to paint on a larger scale 4 of his 12 paintings on the Revolutionary War to decorate the rotunda of the new Capitol in Washington, D.C.: the Signing of the Declaration of Independence (1818), which contains portraits of most of the signers; the Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (1817-1820); the Surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga (1817-1821); and the Resignation of Washington at Annapolis (1824). They are stiffer than the earlier series and seem more arbitrarily contrived.

From 1817 to 1835 Trumbull served as president of the American Academy of Fine Arts in New York City, which he had helped found. He died in New York City on Nov. 10, 1843.


Further Reading on John Trumbull

Theodore Sizer, The Works of Colonel John Trumbull, Artist of the American Revolution (1950; rev. ed. 1967), provides a detailed list of Trumbull's paintings and a group of essays on specific aspects of his work.

Additional Biography Sources

Jaffe, Irma B., John Trumbull, patriot-artist of the American Revolution, Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975.