John Trumbull painted the iconic image of the American Enlightenment, The Declaration of Independence (1787-1820), as well as other Revolutionary War subjects. Monumental versions of four of his paintings have hung since 1826 in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol.
John Trumbull was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, the sixth child of Governor Jonathan Trumbull, the only colonial governor to support independence. Trumbull graduated from Harvard in 1773 and volunteered in a Connecticut regiment when war broke out. Impressed by Trumbull's ability to draw maps, George Washington appointed him his aide-de-camp in 1775.
Trumbull hoped to become a painter, a plan that did not please his family. He sailed to London in 1780 to study with the American-born Benjamin West, whose devotion to grand-style historical paintings had secured him a prominent place in London's art world and the patronage of George III. West welcomed young Americans to his studio, where they studied, practiced, and assisted him on projects. But the British government soon arrested Trumbull as a spy, perhaps because of his family's politics, thus interrupting his studies and prompting his return to America. Back in London after the peace of 1783, Trumbull (on West's suggestion) began work on a series of paintings about the American Revolution. These paintings occupied him for the rest of his life, although frequently he set aside his work for other undertakings: he served, for instance, as former Chief Justice John Jay's secretary during the negotiations in England that resulted in Jay's Treaty (1794). Trumbull spent his last thirty years in America, earning many honors including election in 1817 as the fourth president of the American Academy of Art.
Trumbull's early efforts were grand-style paintings in the tradition of West's Death of General Wolfe (1770), the most celebrated history painting of its time. Both Trumbull's The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill (1786) and The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec (1786) use composition and lighting to consecrate the deaths of these early martyrs to the revolutionary cause, and both paintings are alive with movement. The rest of Trumbull's revolutionary subjects eschew the effects that he deployed so successfully in those initial productions. The only action in The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga (1821) and The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown (1787-1828), both of which feature a central figure flanked by lines of officers and troops, comes from some flags that billow in the wind. In The Resignation of Washington (1824), the heroic Washington himself is almost indistinguishable from the nearly fifty other figures who stand around him. None of the figures in these paintings move, and the compositions seem static and staged.
Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, similarly static, offers what Gary Wills describes as a “decidedly bourgeois picture of a heroic deed.” Although the committee members delivering the draft Declaration (including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin) stand out because of their size from the many other figures, none shows any awareness of the magnitude of the event they have brought about. The founding moment of this republican state occurs, writes Irma Jaffe, “without flourish, without heroic gesture, with no clenched fists, oaths, or mobs.” The placid sobriety of these figures, matched by the restraint of Trumbull's style, celebrates the capacity of ordinary, reasonable men to accomplish extraordinary things. The lack of allusion to the tradition of oath paintings that exalt the often-violent founding of republican states suggests that this particular founding, based on reason, had no precedent. No painter's tricks of color, composition, or allusion, Trumbull shows, are needed to establish the historical significance of this moment: it is self-evident.
Trumbull obsessed about the authenticity of his paintings’ details. Jefferson, who in 1786 suggested to Trumbull that he paint the Declaration, sketched for him the Philadelphia assembly room in which Congress had met. For many years Trumbull traveled America to draw from life the heads of aging revolutionaries before they died; he continued to add portraits to the small original version of The Declaration (now at Yale University) until 1820. Trumbull painted multiple versions of most of his revolutionary subjects, beginning in 1817 the enormous second version of The Declaration (for the Capitol Rotunda) and in 1832 yet another version (now at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut). In 1823 he commissioned from Asher B. Durand an engraving of the painting that circulated widely. Trumbull's own multiplication of the image only predicts its unimaginably widespread dissemination ever since. It is the most recognizable image of the American Enlightenment.
See also: AMERICAN REVOLUTION; DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE; WARREN, JOSEPH; WEST, BENJAMIN
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