John Trumbull (1756-1843)
Let's hear it for independence
|The Declaration of Independence (1819)
We've all seen this painting: the Declaration of Independence, painted by John Trumbull, one of America's leading artists. We've seen it in our history books, on our two-dollar bill and if we've been lucky, in the nation's Capitol Rotunda.
|Engraving of Independence on two-dollar bill
Although I've seen this painting a hundred times in my life, I've never really thought much about the artist who created it. If you remember back in August, I talked about Faith Trumbull and how her artwork, via embroidery, influenced her brother. Well, this is his work. He indeed was influenced by Faith. In fact, from a young age, John Trumbull had pencil in hand and was always drawing. As I've said before artists aren't born, they're well-practiced.
Born in 1856 in Lebanon, Connecticut, John did extremely well in school, so much so that he entered (reluctantly I might add) Harvard at 15 in the second half of the junior year and graduated in 18 months. He desperately tried to talk his father out of sending him to college because he wanted to be an artist. His father had other ideas, like becoming a clergyman or lawyer. Being the youngest in his class at Harvard, John didn't spend much time with his classmates. So you would find him studying art at the school library, reading and copying what he could.[Painting to left: Self-portrait (1777)]
"Soon after my birth was attacked by convulsion fits, which recurred daily, and several times each day, increasing in violence and frequency until I was nearly nine months old, â€” the cause was hidden from the medical men of the vicinity, â€” when one of my father's early friends, Dr. Terry of Suffield, who had be come an eminent physician, called accidentally to make him a passing visit, and was requested to look at the unhappy child. He immediately pronounced the disease to be caused by compression of the brain..."
And if this wasn't enough to drive his parents to distraction, he later fell down the stairs head-first, while playing with his sisters. He had a massive bruise on his forehead above his left eye and after a time, he was unable to see out of that eye. He was only five.
So it seems even more magnificent that a young man who had to struggle for life in his very beginning and then lose his sight in one eye would have such a brilliant mind and artistic hand. But indeed he did.
After graduating from Harvard, he moved back to Lebanon. The troubles between the colonies and Great Britain were steadily brewing. War was slowly creeping up onto the horizon as sure as the sun rises everyday. As a young man, John saw it his duty to help the fight:
"I sought for military information; acquired what knowledge I could, soon formed a small company from among the young men of the school and the village, taught them, or more properly we taught each other, to use the musket and to march, and military exercises and studies became the favorite occupation of the day."
Of course he joined up and became invaluable to George Washington because of his sketching of British works. In time he was appointed second personal aide to the general. By 1776, he became deputy adjutant-general to General Horatio Gates but quit a year later over a dispute of his officer's commission.
After the service, John went to Boston and rented a room from John Smibert (remember him, check out April's issue
). John referred to Smibert as "the patriarch of painting in America." Smibert had lots of engravings and paintings that John could study and copy in order to perfect his craft. In the autumn of 1779, John took off for London for mercantile reasons but actually sought the opportunity to study under Benjamin West (see June's issue
). In his autobiography he listed 68 paintings that he had completed before going to London, proudly stating,
"The following is a list of drawings and pictures executed before my first voyage to Europe, and before I had received any instruction other than was obtained from books."
By now, Trumbull was around 23 years old. I am amazed that such a young man had already accomplished what he had. And now he is about to embark on his first true "tutored" art education through West. But wait! Just over a year later, he was arrested and thrown in jail for treason. The Americans had caught and hanged a British officer for treason and since Trumbull had served as an officer in the Continental Army, the Brits threw him prison in retaliation. Even West, who had the King's ear, could do nothing for him. So for seven months Trumbull sat in London's Tothill Fields Bridewell, where he continued his work always with pencil in hand.
|The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill (1786)
As soon as he was released Trumbull went back home only to return to London in 1784 when Britain finally recognized the United States. This is when Trumball went into full swing with his painting, completing Battle of Bunker Hill and Death of General Montgomery at Quebec, When he went to France a year later he met Thomas Jefferson, who helped him with sketches for the Declaration of Independence and later he would meet with John Adams.
Trumbull method was fascinating. He would paint the scenes of these works, but not finish the heads of the people involved as he wanted to paint them in person. So after painting Dr. Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, all of who were in Europe, Trumbull went back to the United States to paint everyone else. The people who appeared in the Declaration of Independence were those who signed the document. If they had passed away and left no image, he was eliminated from the painting.
By the 1790s, John was back to serving his country as the secretary to John Jay who was then trying to negotiate the Jayâ€™s Treaty and later was somewhat involved in the XYZ Affair. He went back and forth occasionally during this time, partially because he couldnâ€™t make a living on his art, except for portrait work. But he did have great connections, and foreign service seemed to suit him for the time being. In 1809, after going home briefly, he returned to England and stayed longer than he wished because the War of 1812 had commenced. He stayed until 1815. At least he wasn't rounded up as a spy this time.
This was quite a feat, considering Trumbull was now 60 years old. It would take him eight years to complete these paintings. Furthermore, the original paintings were small and he had no enlargement training. This was a immense project, but something he had always wanted. Today all four paintings grace the walls of the Capitolâ€™s Rotunda.
In 1831, Trumbull sold his paintings to Yale University for an annuity of $1,000. In total he created around 250 paintings of our American history which was a great gift as there were no photographs to record any of it. In 1843, John died at 88 years of age. On his tombstone, it says:
"To his country, he gave his sword and his pencil."
Thatâ€™s a fitting statement. John Trumbull wasnâ€™t only a great American artist, but also a great American patriot. I enjoyed learning about him and especially reading his autobiography. I am enormously impressed with his accomplishments, even sometimes wondering how he endured all the traveling, especially as he advanced in age. I guess I'll have to stop complaining about our long 10-hour trips to England--such a wimp I am.
And thus ends my early American art series. Next month, Iâ€™ll be covering pen and ink. Hopefully, Iâ€™ll have a demonstration video by then on the same subject.