Skip to main content
Select Source:

Trumbull, John (1756-1843)

John Trumbull (1756-1843)

Sources

Artist

Early Life. Son of Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, John Trumbull was born in Lebanon, Connecticut. Coming from a wealthy and privileged background, Trumbull resolved to pursue his artistic aspirations from an early age. After graduating from Harvard in 1773, Trumbull painted his first work, The Death of Paulus Aemilius at the Battle of Cannae. Although its subject is classical, this painting expresses his political concerns about the escalating tensions between Britain and the colonies. Soon after the outbreak of the Revolution at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, his sympathy for the cause spurred him to join the army as an adjutant to Gen. Joseph Spencer. In 1776 Gen. Horatio Gates appointed Trumbull a deputy adjutant general, giving him the rank of colonel. The following year, however, Trumbull resigned from the army, angered by a dispute over the date of his commission from the Continental Congress. Returning to artistic activities, he traveled to London in 1780 to study with the renowned painter Benjamin West.

Revolutionary War Series. In 1784 West proposed that Trumbull take over a project that West had started: a series of paintings on the American Revolution. The resulting paintings became Trumbells best-known works. Combining his artistic interests and revolutionary loyalties, Trumbull viewed his role in this undertaking as that of a historian commemorating the great events of our countrys revolution. He shared with historians of his time the conviction that history had to teach a lesson, not just record the past. Thus, Trumbull described his primary motives as: to preserve and diffuse the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves in the history of man; to give 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. Through these paintings Trumbull made an important contribution to the artistic development of the new nation, and he helped shape American images of the Revolution.

Battle Paintings. The first of these works was The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunkers Hill (1786), portraying the death of revolutionary leader Joseph Warren, whose death at Bunker Hill turned him into a martyr for the revolutionary cause. The realistic details are drawn from Trumbulls own experience as an eyewitness at the battle, but he took important liberties with the facts. For example, he portrayed a British officer, Maj. John Small, as attempting to save General Warren. As Trumbull himself acknowledged, this incident was a pictorial liberty, which he included to do honor to Major Small who was distinguished for his humanity and kindness to American prisoners. This approach was consistent with Trumbulls aim to inculcate moral lessons in his audience. For him these higher truths took precedence over the factual accuracy of particular details. He followed this painting with other battle scenesThe Death of General Montgomery at the Battle of Quebec (1786), The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton (1786circa 1828), and The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton (circa 1789circa 1831).

The Declaration of Independence. In 1786 Trumbull turned to a civil event for the subject of his next paintingThe Declaration of Independence. Again he conveyed a moral message in his choice of subject: by including a nonmilitary painting in a series designed to document the American war of independence, he underscored that in contrast to other nations the United States had its origins in a rational assertion of abstract principle rather than in the violence and caprice of monarchs. As usual he painstakingly sought to achieve authentic and realistic portraits of the figures in the painting, but he also departed from the historical record, taking liberties that heightened the dramatic effect of the painting and the symbolic importance of the event. The Declaration of Independence conflated into one day a whole series of events related to the drafting and approval of this document. The painting depicts not the signing of the Declaration but the presentation of the document to John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, by the drafting committee. Trumbull placed the members of this committeeThomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingstonat the center of the scene to highlight their role in this event. He also included signers of the Declaration who had not actually been present on the day the document was signed. In fact, the signers were never assembled as a group in the way that Trumbull depicted them. Most of the delegates signed the Declaration of Indepence on 2 August 1776, and other signatures were added until some time before the publication of the signed document on 19 January 1777.

Later Life. In 1817 the House of Representatives commissioned Trumbull to paint four pictures for the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. He and President James Madison decided that the subjects of these works should be the Declaration of Independence, the surrender of Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga, Gen. Charles Cornwalliss surrender at Yorktown, and the resignation of Gen. George Washington. The installation of these paintings in the Rotunda in 1826 was the crowning achievement of Trumbulls artistic career, and they were the last major, original history paintings before his death in 1843.

Sources

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

Irma B. Jaffe, John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Trumbull, John (1756-1843)." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Trumbull, John (1756-1843)." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/trumbull-john-1756-1843

"Trumbull, John (1756-1843)." American Eras. . Retrieved July 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/trumbull-john-1756-1843

John Trumbull

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

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 Sources

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"John Trumbull." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"John Trumbull." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-trumbull

"John Trumbull." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved July 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-trumbull

Trumbull, John (American painter)

John Trumbull, 1756–1843, American painter, b. Lebanon, Conn.; son of Gov. Jonathan Trumbull. He served in the Continental Army early in the Revolution as an aide to Washington. He resigned his commission in 1777 and devoted himself to painting. In 1780 he went to London to study under Benjamin West. There he was imprisoned on suspicion of treason and finally deported. In 1784 he returned to London, where, at the suggestion of West and with the encouragement of Thomas Jefferson, he began his famous national history, which occupied most of his life. His small paintings (for the engraver) at Yale Univ., such as the Battle of Bunker's Hill (1786) and Death of Montgomery at Quebec (1788), are among his finest works. Trumbull excelled in small-scale painting, especially of oil miniatures (studies for the historical series), the best of which were done in the United States between 1789 and 1793. In the latter year he returned to London as secretary to John Jay and remained for 10 years as one of the commissioners to carry out provisions of the Jay Treaty. He returned to the United States in 1804 with a collection of old masters. He painted portraits, panoramas, and landscapes, and designed the meetinghouse in Lebanon, Conn. In London from 1808 to 1816 he tried unsuccessfully to establish himself as a fashionable portraitist. Returning to New York in 1816, he finally secured a commission from Congress to decorate the Capitol rotunda; his Declaration of Independence,Surrender of General Burgoyne,Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and General George Washington Resigning His Commission are of interest chiefly for their documentary value. In 1831 he founded the Trumbull Gallery at Yale, one of the earliest art museums in the English-speaking colonies, depositing much of his work in exchange for an annuity. He is well represented in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Conn.; Yale Univ.; and the Metropolitan Museum, New York City Hall, and the New-York Historical Society.

See his autobiography (1841; new ed., by T. Sizer, 1953); studies by T. Sizer (1950 and 1967).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Trumbull, John (American painter)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Trumbull, John (American painter)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/trumbull-john-american-painter

"Trumbull, John (American painter)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/trumbull-john-american-painter

Trumbull, John (American poet)

John Trumbull, 1750–1831, American poet, b. Westbury (now Watertown), Conn. He passed the entrance examinations to Yale when he was seven, but did not enter until he was thirteen. While tutoring at Yale he wrote The Progress of Dulness (1772–73), a satire on educational follies. In 1773 he entered the law office of John Adams and was drawn into the political fervor of his times, writing the bombastic An Elegy of the Times (1774) and the mock-epic burlesque of Tory politics, M'Fingal (1775–82). One of the Connecticut Wits, he contributed to the Anarchiad and the Echo and was an ardent Federalist.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Trumbull, John (American poet)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Trumbull, John (American poet)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/trumbull-john-american-poet

"Trumbull, John (American poet)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/trumbull-john-american-poet