John Trumbull

By John M. Hunt, Jr., PhD

John Trumbull (1756-1843)

John Trumbull, aide-de-camp of George Washington, father of American historical painting, the man through whose eyes generations of school children have seen the Revolutionary War, had Mayflower heritage. His mother Faith Robinson, born in Duxbury, MA, was related to Mayflower passengers John Alden and William Mullins: Faith5 Robinson, Hannah4 Wiswall, Priscilla3 Pabody, Elizabeth2 Alden, John1 Alden. What is more, John Trumbull emphatically valued the Pilgrims. "The whole world," he wrote, "is deeply indebted to those venerable men for the great example of fortitude and perseverance which they gave" (letter to James Thacher, 1 May 1835, New York, now in Pilgrim Hall). Trumbull admired Henry Sargent's massive painting The Landing of the Pilgrims, long owned and exhibited by the Pilgrim Society in Pilgrim Hall. It is impossible to appreciate Sargent's Landing (early nineteenth century) without appealing to Trumbull's Death of General Montgomery at Quebec, Battle of Bunker's Hill, and Capture of the Hessians at Trenton. Other great Trumbullian visions include the Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, the Declaration of Independence, and the Resignation of Washington. In 1817 the U.S. Congress commissioned Trumbull to produce new twelve-by-eighteen foot canvases of the latter four, to adorn the central rotunda of the Capitolprice offered: $8000 each.

It was by his ability to draw that the young Trumbull attracted favorable notice. During the British siege of Boston in 1775, risking his life, he positioned himself close enough to the enemy installations to sketch them in exacting detail. Washington was impressed. Later, in 1789, the former commanding general agreed to pose for Trumbull's General Washington at Verplanck's Landing, not to mention General Washington at New York and General Washington at Trenton. The standard of accuracy was high"every minute article of dress down to the buttons and spurs" was "carefully painted from the objects" themselves, including the "reconnoitering glass with which [Washington] is supposed to have been examining the strength of the hostile army."

An interesting story attaches to one portrait. When it was unveiled, the Creek Indians who were present at the seat of government for the approval of the Treaty of New York (in August 1790) were puzzled. One warrior approached the inanimate likeness, half-expecting it to be real, only to find that when he touched simultaneously the front and back of the canvas, his own two hands almost met. There was no depth! The living Washington contributed much to the drama by standing nearby, dressed in a uniform precisely matching that in the painting. As he witnessed the spectacle, Trumbull must have concluded that it spoke volumes about the realism of his art.

A Harvard graduate, class of 1773, Trumbull gave his unsold paintings to Yale in 1831 and designed there, to house his collection, "the earliest art museum connected with an educational institution in America."

Among non-artistic endeavors, Trumbull served as private secretary to John Jay, at Jay's specific request, when he went to England in 1794 to negotiate the so-called Jay Treaty. One of his duties was to carry the treaty, committed to memory, to Paris and repeat it to James Monroe, the U.S. representative there.

Like his Pilgrim ancestors, John Trumbull held to his beliefs and principles. Though for a time he lived as Jefferson's guest in Paris, receiving his encouragement to depict on canvas the major moments in the American Revolution, that did not stop him, amid gibes at his "dour Calvinism," from breaking off the friendship. Like John Alden he was once imprisoned. Alden was detained in Boston, in 1634, on a false charge of murder while Trumbull was jailed in London, in 1780, on "suspicion of treason," seemingly in reprisal for the hanging of Major John Andre in the Benedict Arnold affair.

It is a curious coincidence that both John Alden and John Trumbull died at age eighty-seven.