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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
Temperance named the boy John Trumbull Ray and obtained a judgment against Trumbull. It was then that he wrote Wadsworth, enjoining him to see that the boy was properly brought up and educated.
At length, when he was 44, Trumbull married 26year-old Sarah Hope Harvey, in London. She was a beautiful girl but of mysterious lineage, and no one was ever quite able to fathom why Trumbull married her. There was plenty of gossip, however; when one of the guests at the wedding ceremony was bold enough to ask the bridegroom just who the woman was, the Colonel replied icily, “Mrs. Trumbull, sir.” Whatever her background and whatever her faults (in later years they were to be a source of severe embarrassment to him), it is certain that Trumbull loved her until the day she died.
Sarah never bore her husband a child. The Trumbulls took John Trumbull Ray with them to London in 1808, representing the boy as their nephew. In 1811, at the age of nineteen, the lad joined the British Army and fought in Spain under Wellington. Eventually he found out from his father the exact circumstances of his birth and never went back to America, living out his life in Europe, a sore disappointment to his father. He once wrote Trumbull telling him, among other things, of his marriage and the birth of a child. The elder Trumbull did some furious accounting and sent back an angry note.
“You cannot have arrived from India sooner than the middle of March … you were married about the 16th of May … the Child was born in the middle of November. Now as it is only Eight months from the day of your arrival, and only Six from your Marriage to the birth of the Child—while the ordinary period of pregnancy is Nine , the inference is obvious and unfavorable.”
It may be argued that Trumbull was hardly in a position to write such a letter, but while it is true that he was something of a prig, he had an excuse for his petulance. Things were going from bad to worse for him. When war between England and the United States broke out in 1812, he was living in London, and he soon discovered that nobody wanted a portrait painted by an American. By the time he returned home in 1816, he was heavily in debt.
His financial distress was relieved temporarily when President Madison, with the approval of Congress, commissioned him to paint four historical pictures in the rotunda of the new Capitol. The scenes Madison selected were the Declaration of Independence (Trumbull turned out an undistinguished replica of the original), the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown , and the Resignation of General Washington . It took Trumbull eight years to complete the task; the government paid him $32,000, enough to settle his debts, and that was all.
Meantime, his domestic situation was not as happy as it might have been. During their previous stay in America, between 1804 and 1808, Mrs. Trumbull had not gotten on well with her American in-laws. Now, back in New York, she was lonely and had few friends. She turned to drink, more than once embarrassed her husband, and finally became a confirmed alcoholic.
She died in 1824, tne year Trumbull finished the rotunda paintings. He was embittered further by a battle with other artists. He had helped found the American Academy of Fine Arts and had served as its president from 1817 to 1836, but now the rising generation of artists was in revolt against him. In their minds, he catered too much to the wellborn. In 1825 Trumbull’s younger rivals, led by Samuel F. B. Morse, founded the National Academy of Design, which eventually forced the demise of Trumbull’s Academy.
The revolt was not confined to professional artists. The American public as a whole became indifferent to Trumbull’s later works, and it was only partly because they were not up to the standard of his earlier ones. The truth was that after winning its independence America had begun to change, to become more aware of itself, to glory in its own prosperity and spirit of expansion. American painting did not at first reflect the change. As James T. Flexner points out in The Light of Distant Skies :
“The first major case of frustration in American art was the first gentleman, John Trumbull. … Painting became a refuge for aristocratic hopes that had been wounded by the Revolution, had scrambled back into the saddle during the Federal period, had been unhorsed by Jefferson, lacerated by the embargo, outraged by the War of 1812, and were now in danger of being overwhelmed by new forces marching in from the West behind that plebeian on horseback, Andrew Jackson.”
European-trained “gentleman painters” like Trumbull sought to impose standards of artistic taste from above, but they failed. The revolt began in literature, where American writers like Cooper, Thoreau, and Bryant launched the Romantic movement. Despite the views of men like Trumbull, the movement was soon reflected in painting, which began to reject European style and subjects and to celebrate America.
John Trumbull was too old to get into the mainstream himself, but he did not fail to recognize the strength of the current. In 1825, coming upon some paintings by young Thomas Cole, founder of what was to become the “Hudson River School” of American art, Trumbull exclaimed: “This youth has done what all my life I have attempted in vain!”