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Painter Of The Revolution
The canvases of John Trumbull, sometime soldier, reluctant artist, have given us our visual image of the colonies’ struggle to be free
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
At the end of October, 1797, the year V of the French Revolution, a 41-year-old American artist named John Trumbull was stranded in Paris. The government was in peril and the capital was near chaos. With business at a standstill, poverty was general; restless, quick-tempered crowds roamed the streets. For a foreigner, the atmosphere was dangerous.
But Trumbull, though he was no stranger to Paris— in fact, he was well connected there—could not get a passport to leave. He went to see General Charles C. Pinckney, then in the city as one of the American treaty negotiators at the time of the XYZ affair, when three agents of Talleyrand (Messieurs “X,” “Y,” and “Z”) sought a bribe as the price ot doing business with the French Directory. Pinckney told him, “My friend, I know not what to advise; we have no means ot aiding you, we cannot even protect ourselves.” Next Trumbull went to Talleyrand himself, at whose home he had been a dinner guest a few days before. But Talleyrand seemed to have the impression that Trumbull had come to discuss the XYZ affair and did not even give him a chance to mention his real mission.
Desperate now, and aware that he was under police surveillance, Trumbull sought out his friend and fellow artist, the famous Jacques Louis David, whom he knew to be close to the regime. When Trumbull happened to mention that he had at his hotel his painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill, David said: “That pic- ture is worth a multitude of passports.” He told Trumbull to go and get it; together they would face the police. At the ministry of police David unrolled Trumbull’s canvas and said, “I have known Mr. Trumbull these ten years. … I answer for him; he is as good a revolutionist as we are.” Trumbull got his passport.
David had exaggerated Trumbull’s sympathy for the French Revolution; actually, its excesses had disgusted him, and he had shuddered at David’s “horrid encomium.” Hut in one sense, the Frenchman was right: 1 rumbull was a “good revolutionist.” Hc had fought honorably, if briefly, in his own country’s war tor independence. Even more important, in the years since then he had systematically set himself to portraying its great actors and re-creating its high moments in a series of canvases which even now recall the Revolution’s vigor and romance.
It is on these paintings that John Trumbull’s fame has survived l’or over 150 years. They have their limitations: Trumbull never achieved greatness as a painter, though at his creative best he approached it. Yet in such powerful, concentrated works as the Battle of Bunker’s Hill , the Declaration of Independence , and the Capture of the Hessians at Trenton , Trumbull has placed us on the spot at decisive moments, and in his portraits and miniatures he has shown us what the architects of our independence looked like. And, since he lived at a time when visual recording was scanty, it Is through John Trumbull’s eyes that generations of Americans have recaptured the tumult and glory ol their country’s beginnings. “It has been given but to a few, in the long history of Western painting, to become the creators of the visual symbols of an epoch,” says Theodore Sizer, the distinguished modern critic of Trumbull’s work. “Our image of Martin Luther is derived from the paintings and prints by his friend, Lucas Cranach. Henry VIII and his court live today through the meticulous recordings of Hans Holbein, the Younger. … In like manner, our visual conception of the events surrounding the birth of this republic arc due to the documentation of a certain Connecticut Yankee.”
John Trumbull lived a very long time, perhaps too long. He was born in 1756, and he died 87 years later, with the country at the threshold of the Mexican War. In this time he saw the first ten Presidents take office, and lie was on friendly terms with six of them; in fact he knew most of the great men of the age. It was a wonderfully exciting and creative period, but Triimbidl never really took advantage of it. For his greatest tragedy was that his talents reached a definite peak by the time he was 40 and then gradually declined for the next 47 years.
In addition, Trumbull was out of step with the times—a pure-bred eighteenth-century gentleman, he had the misfortune to linger into the age when Jacksonian democracy was coming to full flower. Verylikely he had spent too much of his time abroad. He lived in Europe for 20 of his 87 years, either in pursuit ol his profession or on assignment lor his government, first as secretary to John Jay, later as one of the commissioners trying to settle the terms of the Jay Treaty. He became so absorbed by European culture that he neglected to discover the new one being erected at home. A dedicated Federalist to the very end, he never could quite understand the world ol Jellerson and Jackson.