- Historic Sites
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
Trumbull was singularly unfortunate in the timing of his European sojourn. In 1780 he was in London studying under that many-splendored tutor of American artists, Benjamin West, when the English spy, Major André, was captured and executed. In retaliation, the British sent I rumbull to jail, where he luxuriated for seven months. (Luxuriate is the correct word: lie was able to rent a large, coinlortalile room in the jailkeeper’s quarters and have his food sent in i’roin a nearby public house.) After West had interceded with King George III and Trunibull himself had written to Edmund Burke, he was finally released. Burke, who took an interest in Ti umbull, advised him to study architecture, pointing out that a new country would require buildings before it needed paintings to decorate them.
But except for designing a church in Lebanon [see page 50], Trunibull did not follow Burke’s advice. Seventeen years later, another accident of timing—the dangerous episode in revolutionary Paris—befell Trunibull, and then the outbreak of the War of 18 ia caught him again in London, where he was interned for the duration, with disastrous consequences for his personal fortune. Assuredly, Trumbull had a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
John Trumbull sprang from fiercely patriotic stock and he himself (despite his posturings) was always an impassioned believer in political freedom. Rut there was nothing in his family background to point him toward an artistic career. His grandfather was a well-todo merchant, as was his father, who was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1710. John’s father was also Revolutionary governor of Connecticut and the only governor to give his unqualified support to the patriots’ cause: in the early years of the war Connecticut was Washington’s chief source of supplies. John’s mother, Faith, was the great-granddaughter of John Robinson, a stern, highly independent old Puritan who had been the Pilgrims’ pastor during their sojourn in Holland and who had come with Brewster to Plymouth. (Later on, when Robinson was excommunicated, it was said that lie refused to recogni/e the sentence and that when the communion was administered he would take his own bread and wine to church with him and celebrate the rite by himself.)
John Trumbull was born on June G, 1750, in Lebanon, the youngest of six children. He had two sisters, Faith and Alary, and three brothers, Joseph, Jonathan, Jr. (later, like his father, governor of the state), and David. IH health made John’s childhood wretched; as an infant he suffered convulsions, and when he was five he fell downstairs and bruised his forehead so severely that a few years later he was unable to see out of his left eye. Monocular vision apparently did not hinder his early work, but the eye bothered him more and more as he got older; it was probably one of the reasons for the marked deterioration of his later efforts.
In spite of his handicaps, John was a brilliant student. Entering Harvard as a junior at the age of fifteen, he graduated a year later, the youngest member ol his class. As an undergraduate, he visited Copley’s studio in Boston, began copying art masterpieces, and for the first time seriously entertained thoughts ol becoming an artist. He became indeed the first college graduate in America to take up the career of professional painter.
By 1773, however, when he graduated, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and England had become increasingly strained, and you’ig TrumbuH put art from his mind. He went to Härtend, where he organixed a group of militant young men into a militia unit. From there it was but a skip and a jump to George Washington’s side. Un July 27, 1775, he was made an assistant aide-de-camp to the General. Ostensibly, lie got the job on merit, by creeping through high grass to get a phin of the British fortifications at Boston Neck. Actually, a little kick entered in: a British deserter stumbled over Trumbull and handed him a rude sketch of the entire works. “That,” Trumbull later commented with dry understatement, “probably led to my future promotion.”