Trumbull was the first American painter to produce a series of history
paintings; they depict scenes of the Revolutionary War. John Trumbull
was an American artist who was born at the right time, into the right
circumstances, and with the talent that would position him to become an
artistic icon of the American Revolutionary period. His emphasis on the
grand manner, historical painting style led to numerous commissions,
including his famous "Declaration of Independence," (shown here) which
hangs in many Federal and state buildings, as well as appearing on the
reverse of the two-dollar U.S. note.
John Trumbull was born in Lebanon Connecticut in 1756 to a prominent family. His father, Jonathan Trumbull, served as governor of Connecticut during John's childhood. When young Trumbull was a child he was involved in an accident that resulted in the loss of vision in one of his eyes. Art historians often attribute his vision loss as a contributing factor to Trumbull's famed attention to detail.
John Trumbull graduated from Harvard College in 1773 and served with the Connecticut First Regiment in the early months of the American revolution. As he has said himself, his "taste for drawing began to dawn early." While at college he studied Brooke Taylor's "Jesuit's Perspective" and William Hogarth's "Analysis of Beauty," and after returning to Lebanon he painted the "Death of Paulus Emilius" at Cannae.
When the Revolutionary war opened, John Trumbull joined the army as adjutant. His skill as a draughtsman enabled him to make drawings of the enemy's works at Boston, and Washington appointed him one of his aides-de-camp. As a soldier in the American Revolutionary War, Trumbull was able to witness the famous Battle of Bunker Hill. He subsequently went northward with Gen. Horatio Gates as adjutant, with the rank of colonel, but on 22 Feb., 1777, being dissatisfied with date of his commission deputy adjutant-general, he resigned and resumed his art-studies.
For John Trumbull, art continued to be his greatest interest. In 1780 John Trumbull went to London, where he met and studied under Benjamin West. West pointed out the timely opportunity for historical painting and portraiture, and he influenced Trumbull to pursue the genre. Traveling to England during the midst of hostilities was a dangerous risk. At some point during 1780, Trumbull was seized and imprisoned for seven months as retribution for the capture and hanging of a British spy in America. Following his release, Trumbull returned home to Connecticut. Less than four years later he returned to work with West, continuing to focus on his grand manner paintings of the American Revolution. The critical era of his life, and that of his finest work, was from 1784 to 1794.
In March 1785 John Trumbull wrote to his father, Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., that "the great object of my wishes...is to take up the History of Our Country, and paint the principal Events particularly of the late War." Influenced by the work of West and John Singleton Copley, Trumbull completed his first history painting, "The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill " (shown above) in March 1786.
John Trumbull began the composition of The Declaration of Independence while visiting Thomas Jefferson in Paris that July. The painting however, would take thirty years and would not be completed until 1817. This painting was famously viewed some years later by President John Adams, who remarked that while Trumbull had captured the spirit of the moment, the painting was rife with inaccuracies.
Trumbull returned to the United States in the fall of 1789. For the next four years John Trumbull travelled along the East coast, painting the portraits he needed for his history paintings. His small oil portraits, his oil sketches for these history paintings, and his life portraits, especially the full-lengths of the 1790's, were influenced by his work with West and his knowledge of French painting. His friendships with Jefferson, John Adams and other political leaders gave him distinct advantages. Trumbull had little success until the Senate asked him to produce four large war paintings, which now hang in the United States Capitol building.
John Trumbull's "Battle of Bunker Hill," and "Death of Montgomery (shown here)," paintings still stand unexcelled in American historical painting. Trumbull's strong portraits of Washington and Alexander Hamilton are also unparalleled historical works. The miniature likenesses in some of John Trumbull's pictures are at times more successful than his large portraits. John Trumbull was appointed President of the American Academy of Fine Art, a position he held for 19 years, although he did not get along with the students at all. Also, his skills declined.
Eventually, his dictatorial behavior led the students to rebel against him and found the National Academy of Design. John Trumbull published an autobiography in 1841. John Trumbull died in New York City at the age of 88. He is interred beneath the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. Part of the inscription on his tomb says "To his Country he gave his SWORD and his PENCIL".