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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
Much as he admired accurate portraiture, neither these nor any of Trumbull’s other famous battle scenes were painted from life. Bunker’s Hill and Death of General Montgomery were executed in the quiet of Benjamin West’s London studio, the former being finished seven years after the battle. When the battle occurred, Trumbull had been four miles away, viewing the action from across Boston Harbor.
Yet in all his work he strove mightily for accuracy. His usual practice was to compose the pictures in miniature first, leaving the faces of the figures blank. Then, if the subjects were still alive and available for sittings, the missing likenesses were painted from life. If not, Trumbull relied on memory, on descriptions by the subject’s friends, or on prints or family portraits. The likeness of the central figure in Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton , for example, was arrived at by studying the General’s sons.
But it is in Trumbull’s most ambitious work, the Declaration of Independence , that one can best gauge the lengths to which the artist would go to ensure reality. The idea for the painting was originally suggested by Thomas Jefferson, a good friend in Trumbull’s early years until Trumbull began to bridle at what he considered Jefferson’s drift toward “radical atheism.” But in Paris, in September of 1786, the two were still very much on speaking terms, and Jefferson not only conceived the painting but also gave Trumbull information and advice, even sketching for him from memory a floor plan of fndependence Hall.
To obtain the portraits of all the signers of the Declaration, the artist went to considerable trouble. He painted Jefferson in Paris and John Adams in London. Most of the others he did in the United States between 1789 and 1794, visiting many eastern and southern cities carrying his small canvas in a special receptacle in his carriage. Altogether he painted 36 from fife (four of whom had not actually signed the document but had taken a prominent part in the debates), nine from portraits by other artists, and two from memory. Another subject, Benjamin Harrison, had died without leaving any portrait of himself, so Trumbull substituted a likeness of Harrison’s son. (The boy assured the artist it was perfectly all right, since his mother had always said he was the image of his father.)
In addition to his battle scenes, Trumbull is remembered for some of his portraits. His favorite subject —and his personal idol—was George Washington, of whom he did some 34 likenesses. The admiration, apparently, was mutual; in 1791 the President wrote to Lafayette: “His pieces so far as they are executed, meet the applause of all who have seen them. The greatness of the design and the masterly execution of the work, equally interest the man of capacious mind, as the approving eye of the connoisseur.”
A year later Trumbull did his favorite Washington portrait, the full-length likeness of the General leaning on the saddle of his white horse with the Battle of Princeton in the background. Trumbull’s description of his concept of the painting is a striking word picture of Washington:
“I undertook it con amore (as the commission was unlimited,) meaning to give his military character, in the most sublime moment of its exertion—the evening previous to the battle of Princeton; when viewing the vast superiority of the approaching enemy, and the impossibility of again crossing the Delaware, or retreating down the river, he conceives the plan of returning by a night march into the country from which he has just been driven, thus cutting off the enemy’s communication, and destroying his depot of stores and provisions at Brunswick.
“I told the President my object; he entered into it warmly, and, as the work advanced, we talked of the scene, its dangers, its almost desperation. He looked the scene again, and I happily transferred to the canvas, the lofty expression of his animated countenance, the high resolve to conquer or to perish.”
The possibilities are that if Trumbull had stuck firmly to his profession, he might have matured as an artist. But his insecurity was such that he was forever looking for an escape. In 1794 it was diplomacy; he accompanied John Jay to London and stayed on as one of the American commissioners negotiating the Jay Treaty. At other times it was mercantile projects, none of which ever worked out.
In Trumbull’s personal life, too, everything seemed to go wrong. In 1789, when he was 33, he fell in love with a lovely but frail young woman, Harriet Wadsworth, who came from Hartford, just thirty miles from Lebanon. Apparently she rejected his love; very soon thereafter consumption carried her off. She was only 24.
After this unhappy event Trumbull discovered a pretty but slatternly servant girl, Temperance Ray, working in the household of his brother Joseph. In a revealing and gravely sardonic letter written in 1799 to his close friend, James Wadsworth, a cousin of the Hartford Wadsworths, Trumbull confessed the consequences of their liaison:
“When I was last in America an accident befel me, to which young Men are often exposed;—I was a little too intimate with a Girl who lived at my brother’s, and who had at the same time some other particular friends; —the natural consequence followed, and in due time a fine Boy was born;—The number of Fellow labourers rendered it a little difficult to ascertain precisely who was the Father; but as I was best able to pay the Bill, the Mother using her legal right, judiciously chose me. …”