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Trumbull John
(17561843)

Trumbull John(17561843)

Unlike his lower middle class contemporaries Copley, Stuart and Peale, Trumbull came from one of the American Colonies most prominent families. His father, Jonathan Trumbull, Sr (1710-1785) ended his notable career as Governor of Connecticut in the newly independent United States. A visit to John Copleys studio, on the way to Harvard at the age of fifteen, profoundly influenced the young Trumbulls eventual decision to become a painter. Talk of independence from Britain among his contemporaries led him to drop both teaching and painting, and in the spring of 1775 he joined the Connecticut First Regiment.

He soon obtained recognition, as his talent for drawing enabled him to produce accurate maps of enemy positions from direct observation. His experience serving under Washingtons command gave him a lifelong regard for the person of the first President, of whom he painted sixteen portraits.

Trumbulls career was inevitably hindered by the ongoing War. Like Copley he felt constrained by the provincialism of the art world in America and, in 1780, departed for London, to study with Benjamin West (1738 1820), the enormously successful American born painter who was later elected President of the Royal Academy. He traveled first to Paris and thence to London where West encouraged him to work closely with another of his students, the more advanced Gilbert Stuart. Unfortunately after unwisely speaking out in favor of the Revolution and against the British, he found himself imprisoned for treason.

On returning to Connecticut he was persuaded by his brother David to assist him in provisioning the army, a task which, after his brave talk in London, he could hardly refuse. With the cessation of hostilities he managed to persuade his father to support him in his chosen career, returning to London in January 1784 where he rejoined Wests studio, studying at the Royal Academy drawing school. By March 1786 he had completed The Death of General Warren at Bunkers Hill (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery) and, soon afterwards, The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec (also at Yale). At Jeffersons invitation he took the opportunity to visit Paris, where he was exposed to the masterly talents of the portraitist Louise Vige-LeBrun and the genius of David. He certainly saw there Davids Oath of the Horatii, as he commented on its merits in his memoirs.

Back in London he returned to Revolutionary themes with the Declaration of Independence and the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. At same time he commenced a more ambitious project, The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), a story of British heroism calculated to attract more positive criticism from the London critics. This measures 70 by 106 inches and was clearly intended to be compared with the monumental scale works of West and Copley, as well as make his own reputation as a history painter in the mold of David.

In 1789, after a second visit to Paris to witness the Revolution at first hand, he returned home to America. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson upon his return 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 countrys revolution.

In 1794 his earlier experiences in London and Paris earned him an appointment as John Jays secretary in the latters diplomatic mission to London. He spent most of 1796-97 in Paris. Unfortunately Trumbulls talents as a painter seem to have begun to decline in the mid 1790s, the bold handling of paint being replaced with a more limited palette, smoother handling, and overuse of black.

By the time he returned to the United States in 1804 the newly independent Republic was gradually emerging from a decade of economic stagnation. Trumbull established a studio in New York City, working predominately as a portraitist over the next four years until 1808, before returning to Connecticut. In 1805 he became President of the newly formed New York Academy of Fine Arts and, in 1808, was elected Vice-President of the American Academy of Fine Arts. In 1809 he returned to London for treatment for eye problems, remaining there until 1815 and painting large scale rather lugubrious Religious and Historical works which did not have a great success with the British public. Upon his return to the United States, Trumbull exhibited some twenty of these works at the American Academy, intending to buttress his reputation.

In 1816 his celebrity and social prominence earned him election as President of the American Academy of Fine Arts, a post he retained until resigning in 1835. In the same year, 1816, he suggested that the Capitol be decorated with scenes from the Revolutionary War, proposing himself as the architect of the principal commission, to paint four large historical paintings illustrating scenes in the Rotunda. Over the succeeding two decades he continued his career as a portrait painter, while in his role as the most prominent American artist he dominated the Academy. Unfortunately, his tenure of this post was unsuccessful, as his failure to provide younger painters and students with an environment which gave them the artistic education they sought led to the formation of the rival National Academy of Design. Trumbull later turned down the opportunity to merge the two academies and, within six years of his resignation, the American Academy closed. In 1831 he sold his own extensive collection to Yale University, providing the nucleus of the Yale University Art Gallery. The last years of his artistic career were spent on the production of large versions of his Declaration of Independence, the Death of General Warren at Bunkers Hill, and the Death of General Montgomery at Quebec, which after his death were acquired by Daniel Wadsworth for his Athenaeum. Like his religious works of the first decade of the century, they lacked the bold handling of paint of his earlier versions and were not received with great favor by contemporary critics. In 1837 he began the autobiography that was published in 1841 but which, while important as a historical record of the time, was a commercial disappointment. He died two years later, at his home in New York City, and in accordance with his instructions, was buried at the foot of his portrait of George Washington in the Yale University Art Gallery.


Aitutaki, 1976, Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

Aitutaki, 1976, Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

Barbuda, 1976, Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

German Federal Republic, 1994, Steuben, Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

Rumania, 1976, Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

Upper Volta, 1975, Lafayette and Rochambeau

USA, 1931, Rochambeau, Washington and de Grass

USA, 1976, Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

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