John Trumbull

Self-Portrait, 1777

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QUICK FACTS
BORN:
6 June 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut
  DIED:
10 November 1843 in New York, New York
Buried with his wife in a stone tomb beneath the Old Art Gallery at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT.

  • From a childhood accident Trumbull looses sight of one eye. As an artist he is monocular, without depth of vision.
  • On 23-Jan-1790 Trumbull announces his project for a series of 13 national history paintings in the New York newspaper Gazette of the United States. The subjects include:
    • Bunker's Hill
    • Quebec
    • The Declaration of Independence
    • Trenton
    • Princeton
    • The Surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga
    • The Treaty with France (not executed)
    • Yorktown
    • The Signing of the Treaty of Paris (not executed)
    • The Evacuation of New York by the British( not executed)
    • The Resignation of General Washington
    • The President Received by the Ladies of Trenton and the Arch (not executed)
    • The Inauguration of the President (not executed)
    On 2-Apr-1790 Trumbull publishes a broadside advertisement for the series to which he adds The Battle of Eutaw Springs (not executed).
  • Trumbull signs an indenture (19-Dec-1831) to sell 28 paintings and 60 miniature portraits to Yale University for an annuity of $1000, payable for the remainder of his life. He is 75.
  • As part of the agreement, Yale commits to constructing a fireproof building to house the works. Designed by Trumbull himself, it opens to the public on 25 October 1832.
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John Trumbull, American artist best known for his historical paintings depicting events from the American Revolution, was born at Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1756. His father was Jonathan Trumbull (1710 - 85), Governor of Connecticut (1769 - 84).

He graduated from Harvard in 1773. As a volunteer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, he rendered particular service at Boston by sketching plans of the British works, and was subsequently appointed second aide-de-camp to George Washington. In June 1776 he became Deputy adjutant general to General Horatio Gates, with the rank of colonel, but resigned from the army in 1777.

Trumbull went to London in 1780 to study under Benjamin West. But his work had hardly begun when, after the news of the arrest and execution of Major John André (who was implicated in the treason of Benedict Arnold), he was imprisoned for seven months as retribution — since, like André, he too had been an adjutant general.

In 1784 he was again in London working under West, who suggested a series of American historical paintings that ultimately became the core of his artistic legacy. In West’s studio he painted the death of General Warren in The Battle of Bunker’s Hill and Death of General Montgomery.

Trumbull went to Paris in 1785, where he made portrait sketches of French officers for The Surrender of Cornwallis, and began — with the encouragement of Thomas JeffersonThe Declaration of Independence. These paintings, along with The Surrender of Burgoyne and The Resignation of Washington, were the four paintings commissioned by the U.S. Congress in 1817 to be enlarged for the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, DC.

Trumbull expected to profit from engravings of his historical paintings. While early sales of the prints seemed positive, in the end, only 344 were sold — not nearly as many as he had hoped. Discouraged, he went to London in 1794 as secretary to John Jay and stayed 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. But since he could not secure a Federal commission (he had fallen out with Jefferson, now President, a decade before), he went back to London in 1808 and remained there until 1816.

Although the four paintings executed for Congress between 1817 and 1824 are stiffer than the originals, they became the crowning achievement of Trumbull’s artistic career when they were installed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1826. They were also his last major history paintings.

In 1831 Trumbull founded the Yale University Art Gallery when he gave 88 paintings to the college in return for an annuity of $1000. He designed the Picture Gallery that opened to the public in October 1832.

As president of the American Academy of Fine Arts in New York (1816 - 25), his classical idea of painting clashed with the increasingly romantic style supported by the students.

Trumbull’s own portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart and by many others. He died in New York in 1843.

ADAPTED FROM:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

CONNECTED TO:
| West, Benjamin

Yet there is no doubt that his natural abilities were what most distinguished [John] Marshal from other lawyers and jurists. His head, said Senator Rufus King, is the best organized of anyone I have known. Marshal could grasp a subject in its whole and yet simultaneously analyze it parts and relate them to the whole. He could move progressively and efficiently from premise to conclusion in a logical and rigorous manner and extract the essence of the law from the mass of particulars. In the words of Justice Story, he had the remarkable ability to seize, as it were by intuition, the very spirit of juridical doctrines. Even Jefferson acknowledged Marshall’s talent, but he scarcely respected it. Jefferson told Story that when conversing with Marshall, I never admit anything. So sure as you admit any position to be good, no matter how remote from the conclusion he seeks to establish, you are gone. So great is his sophistry you must never give him an affirmative answer, or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why, if he were to ask me whether it were daylight or not, I’d reply, Sir, I don’t know, I can’t tell.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)