John Trumbull: Art and Politics in the Revolution

John Trumbull, self portrait, 1777. Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
John Trumbull, self portrait, 1777

The American Revolution and the decade of disputes with Great Britain that preceded it marked a major turning point in the development of political thought in the colonies. The new ideologies often reflected where an individual’s political loyalties lay. While much attention has been focused on the political transformation that occurred during this era, little has been written in regard to political discourse within the arts, and among artists themselves. The cultural developments of a time period, especially those involving art, have the ability to reveal the historical events of that time from the perspective of the artist. More often than not, a painting not only depicts the scene of a historical event, but also reflects the personal opinions of the artist in relation to the scene depicted. How was the American Revolution portrayed within art, and to what extent were the era’s artists involved in the struggle? One American-born artist, John Trumbull, adopted a much more definite and proclaimed political opinion within his art as opposed to the political ambiguity displayed within the works of other American-born artists. By examining Trumbull’s involvement within both the political and artistic realms during the Revolutionary War, a better understanding can be reached, not only of the art of the American Revolution, but also of the political and cultural thoughts of its artists.

John Trumbull was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1756, the youngest of six children.[1] His father, Jonathan Trumbull, was a representative in the Connecticut General Assembly, and his mother, Faith, was a descendant of John Robinson, a Pilgrim leader.[2] Trumbull began his education at a very young age, displaying a love for art and drawing, later stating about his youth: “I soon displayed a singular facility in acquiring knowledge, particularly of languages, so that I could read Greek at six years old…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.”[3] By the time he was fifteen, his father was the governor of Connecticut and aspired for his son to study law at Harvard, seeing his son’s passion for art as not being applicable to a successful life.[4] Trumbull, however, did not agree with these views: “The tranquility of the arts seemed better suited to me…and I ventured to remonstrate with my father…that the expense of a college education would be inconvenient to him, and after it was finished I should still have to study some profession by which to procure a living; whereas, if he would place me under the instruction of Mr. [John Singleton] Copley…the expense would probably not exceed that of a college education, and that at the end of my time I should possess a profession, and the means of supporting myself…but my father had not the same veneration for the fine arts that I had.”[5] Despite his feelings, Trumbull left for Harvard in 1772, all the while teaching himself the fine arts, learning from viewing paintings done by other American artists.[6]

In July 1773 he graduated from Harvard, and that December the movement toward the Revolution commenced with the Boston Tea Party.[7] The onset of American Independence greatly influenced Trumbull and he desired to participate in the cause, stating that “I sought for military information; acquired what knowledge I could, soon formed a small company from among the young men of the school and the village, taught them, or more properly we taught each other, to use the musket and to march, and military exercises and studies became the favorite occupation of the day.”[8] In April 1775, Trumbull joined the First Regiment of Connecticut, and in June of that same year, he witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill.[9] Throughout his military service, he not only acted as aide-de-camp to General George Washington, but he was also given the rank of colonel by Major General Horatio Gates.[10] After resigning from the army in 1777 Trumbull took up art once more, even though his family still saw the arts as a frolicsome hobby.[11] He decided to go to Boston to study portraits, hoping to learn from Boston-born artist John Singleton Copley; however, when he arrived he discovered that Copley had already left for Europe, a place he wished to go himself to further his education on painting techniques.[12] Trumbull desired to learn history painting from Benjamin West, his main interest being creating scenes of the grandeur of the American Revolution.[13] West, an American-born artist who not only became successful within the London Royal Academy, but also began the acclaimed American painting style called “history painting,” tutored and mentored several famous American artists who yearned to follow his newly developed technique.[14] In 1780, after a failed business scheme in Paris involving the investment of American securities, Trumbull went to London to study under West.[15] He spent four months working with West and other native-born American artists like Copley and Gilbert Stuart; however, while in London he remained quite open in his political opinions and anti-British sentiments.[16] In a letter to his family, he wrote “Tis the sword only that can give us such a peace, as our past glorious struggles have merited. The sword must finish what it has so well begun.”[17]

However, on November 20, 1780, news arrived in London about the death of Major John Andre, who was executed in New York after having been found to be a spy for the British.[18] This news inspired rage in many American loyalists who were living in England, who witnessed Trumbull’s glorification of American subjects in his art.[19] Out of suspicion, a desire for revenge and the fact that Trumbull was not only a former officer in the Continental Army but was also in correspondence with Benjamin Franklin while he was in England, Trumbull was arrested and charged with treason.[20] In response to his arrest, Trumbull stated: “I had remained some time in London, with more prospect of success there than in any place on the continent, and perfectly secure under the name of an artist, till the news of the death of the unfortunate Andre arrived, and gave a new edge to the vengeful wishes of the American refugees. The arts they had for a long time used to no effect, now succeeded; and they had interest enough to persuade the ministry that I was a dangerous person, in the service of Dr. Franklin, &c&c. The occasion united with their wishes, and the resentment of government marked me as an expiatory sacrifice.”[21] During his trial, Trumbull testified that he had resigned from military service and was in London solely to pursue painting and art. “I am a son of the…governor of Connecticut…I have had the honor of being an aid-du-camp [sic] to…General Washington. These two have always in their power a greater number of your friends, prisoners, than you have of theirs…I am entirely in your power; and, after the hint I have given you, treat me as you please, always remembering, that as I may be treated, so will your friends in America be treated by mine,” he declared.[22] Trumbull was imprisoned for eight months despite West’s efforts to have him released, even after West appealed to King George III himself.[23]

Finally, in 1781, Trumbull was freed and deported to America.[24] While in America, Trumbull aided his brother in procuring provisions for the American army, but still longed to practice art.[25] Finally, after persuading his father that art was not the improper profession he deemed it to be, the governor wrote a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth in 1783 stating Trumbull’s desire “to improve his natural turn to the Pencil, which his Countryman the celebrated artist Mr. West considers as well worthy of cultivation.”[26] Trumbull returned to London in January 1784, under the tutelage of West yet again.[27] While he was in London, he earned money from portrait commissions, but stated in a letter to his father that “the great object of my wishes…is to take up the History of Our Country, and paint the principal Events particularly of the late War:-but this is a work which to execute with any degree of honour or profit, will require very great powers-& those powers must be attain’d before I leave Europe.”[28]

The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775, by John Trumbull. Current location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775, by John Trumbull

Trumbull desired to produce a series of scenes of “national history,” creating his first serious Revolutionary history painting in 1785 with The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 17 June 1775 (fig.1).[29] Trumbull picked this event not only because he was an eyewitness to the actual battle, but also because he wanted to construct a scene of “military martyrdom.”[30]Trumbull spoke about the scene as “a tribute of gratitude to the memory of eminent men, who had given their lives for their country.”[31] While the painting shows the fallen American general about to be killed by a British soldier, it also highlights another British soldier holding his fellow soldier back, preventing him from bayoneting Warren.[32]  Trumbull’s objective was to show the humanitarian side of war, that humans could still be generous despite the governments that send them to kill one another.[33] In July 1786, Trumbull visited Thomas Jefferson in Paris where he got to view a variety of great French artists like Titian and Correggio.[34]  While he was there he showed Jefferson The Death of General Warren, and Jefferson greatly admired it, stating in a letter to Ezra Stiles: “[A] countryman of yours, Mr. Trumbul, has paid us a visit here, and brought with him two pictures which are the admiration of the Connoisseurs. His natural talents for this art seem almost unparalleled.”[35]

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull
Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

In November 1786 Trumbull returned to London from Paris and began painting The Declaration of Independence (fig.2).[36] This painting is by far one of Trumbull’s best known works, and while it was meant to show the events of July 4, 1776, in reality it shows the meeting of the individuals within the appointed committee responsible for drawing up a draft of the declaration, this committee later submitting the final draft created by Thomas Jefferson on June 28.[37] Trumbull worked on this painting until 1817, continually adding to the members within the painting, the majority of which were derived from actual life portraits.[38] In a letter to Jefferson, Trumbull said: “The picture will contain Portraits of at least Forty Seven Members:-for the faithful resemblance of Thirty Six I am responsible, as they were done by myself from the Life, being all who survived in the year 1791. of the remainder, Nine are from pictures done by others.”[39] This painting was so important to Trumbull that, when in 1817 he was commissioned by Congress to decorate the Capitol Rotunda; he chose to start with a replica of The Declaration of Independence.[40]

In 1789, at the pinnacle of his career, Trumbull turned down an offer to come to Paris to serve as Franklin’s personal secretary so as to continue painting in the name of “professional and patriotic obligation.”[41] In a letter to Franklin, Trumbull wrote: “The greatest motive I had or have for engaging in, or for continuing my pursuit of painting, has been the wish of commemorating the great events of our country’s revolution. I am fully sensible that the profession, as it is generally practiced, is frivolous, little useful to society, and unworthy of a man who has talents for more serious pursuits. But, to preserve and diffuse the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves in history of man; to give to the present and the 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 to transmit to their descendants, the personal resemblance of those who have been the great actors in those illustrious scenes, were objects which gave a dignity to the profession, peculiar to my situation.”[42] Trumbull desired to return to the United States in hopes of displaying his history paintings there; however, in 1794 he was offered a position by Chief of Justice John Jay with the Jay Treaty Commission in London.[43] Trumbull was apprehensive about giving up his art, even temporarily, but his family was ecstatic over the offer so he accepted.[44] He corresponded with Jay concerning matters of the Jay Treaty, and in 1797 he was appointed as secretary to Jay, later becoming involved with the “XYZ Affair,” and remained in London for ten years as a commissioner to carry out the stipulations of the Jay Treaty. All of these things ultimately kept him from continuing his painting.[45]

By the time he returned to the United States in 1804, Trumbull feared how his paintings would be viewed considering the new nation’s absence of national unity. He wrote to his nephew-in-law in 1803: “I feel at times not a little anxiety on the Subject of picture making-I have by no means money enough to live comfortably without business of some sort-I hate your nasty Squabbling Politics-they disgust me:-I know nothing of Farming-little of Trade & I fear I shall find that my Countrymen care very little for the only thing which I pretend to understand.”[46] Trumbull, while openly patriotic in not only his letters and statements, but in his paintings, was set upon instilling nationalism within his art, while at the same time participating in and advancing the “history painting” style that Benjamin West had created so many years before. Despite his efforts, his history painting was not fully accepted in America. In 1817, a letter John Adams sent to Trumbull displayed Adams’s own frustration with Americans’ lack of interest in the Revolution. Adams saw no use in supporting Trumbull’s history painting efforts, observing that “I must beg your pardon of my Country, when I say that I See no disposition to celebrate or remember, or even Curiosity to enquire into the Characters Actions or Events of the Revolution. I am therefore more inclined to despair, than to hope for your Success”.[47]

Trumbull desired to influence American political opinion on a dramatic scale through the visual impact of his art, but he never truly gained the political recognition that he so greatly yearned for. Despite the success Trumbull achieved in England as a result of his talent, his subject matter was still unpopular in London. Trumbull’s active participation in the Revolutionary cause is not only significant, but also unique due to the manner in which he chose to represent it. As Trumbull knew, art has and will continue to affect history. The elements of art, while important indeed, are only a small aesthetic component within the larger scale of its utilitarian purpose. For the most part, art is a tool used to unlock many puzzles within history, and the artists who produce it, like John Trumbull, are the key.

 


[1] Helen A. Cooper, John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1982), 2.

[2] Cooper, 2.

[3] John Trumbull, Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters by John Trumbull from 1756 to 1841 (New York, London, and New Haven, 1841), 5.

[4] Cooper, 2.

[5] Trumbull, 11.

[6] Cooper, 3.

[7] Cooper, 3.

[8] Trumbull, 15-16.

[9] Cooper, 3.

[10] Cooper, 3.

[11] Cooper, 4.

[12] Cooper, 4.

[13] Montgomery et al., American Art, 98.

[14] Woltz, 131.

[15] Cooper, 5.

[16] Cooper, 5.

[17] Helen Cooper, John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1982), 5, quoted in Lewis Einstein, Divided Loyalties, London, 1933, 364.

[18] Montgomery et al., 98.

[19] Cooper, 5.

[20] Cooper, 5.

[21] Trumbull, Autobiography, 316-317.

[22] Trumbull, 71.

[23] Cooper, 5.

[24] Montgomery et al., 98.

[25] Cooper, 6.

[26] Jonathan Trumbull, sr. to the Earl of Dartmouth, October 13, 1738, in Facsimiles of Manuscripts In European Archives Relating to America, 1773-1783, ed. B. F Stevens (Wilmington, Del : Mellifont Press, 1970), no.2107.

[27] Cooper, 7.

[28] Cooper, 7.

[29] Montgomery et al., 98.

[30] Cooper, 32.

[31] Trumbull, 93.

[32] Cooper, 32.

[33] Cooper, 32.

[34] Cooper, 8.

[35] Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Stiles, September 1, 1786, in Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, Mina R. Bryan, and Lyman H. Butterfield (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), 317.

[36] Cooper, 9.

[37] Cooper, 76.

[38] Cooper, 78.

[39] Cooper, 78.

[40] Cooper, 76.

[41] Trumbull, Autobiography,157-158.

[42] John Trumbull to Thomas Jefferson, June 11, 1789, in American Art, 1700-1960: Sources and Documents, ed. John W. McCoubrey (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1995), 40.

[43] Cooper, 10.

[44] Cooper, 11.

[45] Cooper, 11.

[46] Cooper, 12.

[47] Cooper, 15.

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