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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
All his life Trumbull was to trade on a military reputation based less on solid fact than on his idealized conception of it. Invariably he presented himself as a wartime intimate of Washington, though he served only nineteen days on the General’s staff. Wherever he went in later years he was known as “Colonel Trumbull,” although he had little rieht to the title; he had actually received a colonel’s commission, but he did not hold it long. After his brief tour with Washington he was named adjutant to General Horatio Gates and later accompanied him to Albany. There Trumbull distinguished himself by demonstrating to General Benedict Arnold and Colonel Anthony Wayne that Fort Ticonderoga would be untenable unless Mount Defiance, a 750-foot eminence southwest of the Tort, were occupied and fortified. Hut despite Trumbull’s advice it was the British who finally occupied Defiance, one of General Burgoyne’s aides remarking: “Where a goat can go and where a man can go, he can drag a gun.”
Soon after this young Trumbull—he was only twenty —resigned his commission in a huff because the Continental Congress had dated it three months later than he expected. “A soldier’s honour forbids giving up the least pretension to rank,” he declared pompously—and added, “I lay aside my Cockade and Sword, with a Determinalion, fixed as Fate , never to resume them until I can do it with Honour.”
He saw no further chance for honor until 1778, when General Sullivan was about to make an effort to take Newport, Rhode Island, from the British. Trumbull joined Sullivan as volunteer aide-de-camp, and though the attack failed when the blockading French licet was swept away in a hurricane, he turned out to be of some help alter all. Trumbull’s line eye lor color literally saved an American unit. As recounted in his autobiography, the event makes stirring reading, even il the dialogue is somewhat stilted. Ordered to tell Colonel Edward Wigglesworth to withdraw lrom Windmill Hill, Trumbull rode to the summit ol the hill.
“ ‘Don’t say a word, Trumbull,’ cried the gallant commander. ‘I know your errand, but don’t speak; we will heat them in a moment.’
“ ‘Colonel Wigglesworth, do yon sec those troops crossing obliquely from the west road towards your rear?’
“ ‘Yes, they are Americans coming to our support.’
“ ‘No, sir, those arc Germans: mark, their dress is blue and yellow , not buff; they are moving to fall into your rear, and intercept your retreat. Retire instantly—don’t lose a moment or you will be cut off.’ ”
The obstinate Wigglesworth finally did withdraw his unit—and just in time, lor the onrushing troops were in fact Hessians.
And that was about the extent of Irumbull’s military career. All told lie had served about a year and a hall in various useful capacities with the Continental Army between 1775 and 1777, plus the brief tour of duty with Sullivan.
Yet, limited as his first hand acquaintance with the Revolution was, it was to furnish him with the inspiration for almost all the great paintings on which his reputation is based. His artistic career began in 1780, when he decided to go to England and learn something about art from Hcnjamin West, the teacher of sudi Americans as Charles Willson Pcale, William Dunlap, Afatthcw Pratt, Ralph Earl, and Washington AHston. It was possible, during the milder-mannered eighteenth century, for private citizens ol belligerents to travel between warring countries in ways no longer imaginable. Young 1 rumbull, then 24, sailed in Afay, stopping first in Paris, where he met Rcnjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Adams’ fourteen-year-old son, John Quincy; then, bearing a letter of introduction to West from Franklin, he traveled to London. He arrived with no samples of his work, and West ordered him to paint a copy of Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia . Trumbull did so, with another of West’s students, Gilbert Stuart, helping his colleague mix the paints. West seemed impressed with the result.
“Mr. Trumbull,” he said, “I have now no hesitation to say that nature intended you lor a painter. You possess the essential qualities; nothing more is necessary but careful and assiduous cultivation.”
The cultivation was interrupted by Trumbull’s imprisonment on “suspicion of treason” in the André affair, and after his release he was admonished to leave England within thirty days and not to return until peace was restored. When he returned to America, however, he had a difficult time convincing people —including himself—that he should be an artist. His mother wanted him to be a clergyman, his father wanted him to be a lawyer, his friends proposed a business career. All agreed that art was an inferior pursuit lor a gentleman. Trumbull himself wavered. Throughout his life doubts pursued him; once he told a young artist, ”Î would have been a beggar had I wholly relied on paintings lor my support.”
Nevertheless, despite the interruptions and the misgivings, the next sixteen years, beginning with Trumbull’s return to London in 1784, were years of remarkable achievement. By 1786 he reached his absolute peak as an artist, finishing Bunker’s Hill, Death of General Montgomery , and Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar .