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 himself had switched to large-scale religious pieces and heroic and literary compositions. The results were abysmal, the mediocre products of a faltering old age. One contemporary critic suggested, not unkindly, that Trumbull would have been better off had he burnt all of his later works.
In 1832 Trumbull found a way out of his need for money and recognition. He offered his pictures to Yale University in exchange for an annuity of $1,000 a year. (Friends, officials, and professors of the university agreed to guarantee the annuity for a period of six years. This seemed safe enough, considering the fact that Trumbull was then 75 years old. But he lived on for twelve years, to the considerable discomfiture of the guarantors.) Trumbull also asked that he be allowed, at his own expense, to build a tomb for himself and his wife under the art gallery. Yale accepted the offer, and the Trumbull Gallery became the earliest college art museum in America.
Five years later Trumbull went to New Haven to live with his nephew by marriage, the noted scientist Benjamin Silliman. There he spent the last years of his life writing his autobiography. He died peacefully on November 10, 1843, and was buried, as he had requested, beside his wife and beneath his full-length portrait of Washington.
Trumbull was never a modest man; a preacher some years after Trumbull died characterized him unforgivingly as a “man who seldom erred by an excess of meekness.” But he did present the Republic a portrait of itself in all the agony and drama of its birth, and because of this great legacy posterity has not failed him.