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John Trumbull Photo

John Trumbull

American Painter

Born: June 6, 1756 - Lebanon, Connecticut
Died: November 10, 1843 - New York, New York
Movements and Styles:
"...the late War opens a new and noble field for historical painting and our Vanity will make portraiture as gainful in America as in any part of the world."
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John Trumbull
"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...."
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John Trumbull
"I feel at times not a little anxiety on the Subject of picture making - I have by no means money eno[ugh]: to live comfortably without business of some sort...."
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"The greatest motives I had or have for engaging in, or for continuing my pursuit of painting has been the wish of commemorating the great events of our country's revolution...."
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John Trumbull

Summary of John Trumbull

Trumbull was one of early America's most consummate and versatile painters. He is mostly celebrated today for his portraits and history paintings of the leaders and events connected (during and after) with the American Revolution. He is also recognized as a pioneering figure in his country's proud tradition of landscape painting. A committed patriot, Trumbull worked also as a foreign diplomat, and actively promoted American art in his 19 year presidency of the American Academy of Fine Arts. Towards the end of his life, Trumbull donated his unsold canvases to Yale College, designed the building to houses them, and in so doing, created the first American college art gallery. Today, Trumbull's paintings live on as symbols of America's patriot spirit, while future generations of Americans have been able to visualize the birth of their nation through his art.


  • Trumbull's driving ambition was to become a history painter, telling his father, "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". He realized this goal by memorializing battle scenes from the Revolutionary War, culminating with four historical paintings, including his most famous work, The Declaration of Independence (1818), that adorn the United States Capitol rotunda. These paintings have become iconic and have served as the backdrop to many congressional ceremonies and events.
  • Known in his day as the "patriot artist", Trumbull enjoyed his greatest commercial success as a portrait painter. With a keen eye for physical likeness, he painted the portraits of many of the key political figures, the best known of which are George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. With a pedigree that saw him tutored (in London) by Benjamin West, Trumbull was well versed in the academic conventions of European portraiture and his 16 portraits of Washington have helped reinforce the first president's formidable historical legend.
  • Trumbull produced a small, but important, number of vistas of untamed New York State and Eastern Canada. These pieces have seen him discussed as one of the first professional American artists to adopt landscape as a subject with works that have been labelled "proto-Romantic". Moreover, Trumbull is credited with "discovering" and mentoring a young Thomas Cole, future founder of the famous Hudson River School of landscape painting.

The Life of John Trumbull

<i>Self-Portrait</i> (1802)

Christies auction house writes, "Trumbull is renowned as an important documentarian of early American history and his works, which combine the elements of Revolutionary history and detailed portrait painting, helped to create the extraordinary cult of [George] Washington extant both in Washington's lifetime and well after his death in 1799".

Important Art by John Trumbull

Progression of Art
Alexander Hamilton (1792)

Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton was one of the foremost statesmen of the United States and an early supporter of American independence from Britain. Like Trumbull, he enlisted in the Continental Army and was a key member of General George Washington's entourage. Following the Revolution, Hamilton (with John Jay and James Madison) co-authored the Federalist Papers, which helped ratify the United States Constitution. (Sadly, following an exchange of fierce insults, Vice President Aaron Burr shot Hamilton dead in a duel in 1804.) Trumbull's portrait was painted after Hamilton's appointment as the first Secretary of the Treasury for Washington's newly formed presidency. Trumbull's reserved portrait shows him standing next to his desk with his right hand resting on a piece of paper next to an ink pot and quill pen. Curator Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser says of the painting, "Trumbull did not include overtly political symbols that would have been suitable for the man who had served as Washington's military secretary, a cabinet officer, and the powerful leader of the Federalist party. The delicate color scheme and soft highlights suggest a restrained, unof­ficial atmosphere".

Trumbull's portrait is testament to his willingness to respect the wishes of his sitters. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "in 1791, five New York merchants representing the Chamber of Commerce commissioned John Trumbull to paint a full-length portrait of the treasury secretary to commemorate his civic and mercantile accomplishments. Hamilton, however, requested to be depicted as if 'unconnected with any incident of my political life.' To please both patrons and sitter, Trumbull drew on compositional conventions of European portraiture but carefully avoided elaborate accessories and political symbols, painting Hamilton in an unofficial setting as an elite citizen of the new republic".

Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

View on the West Mountain near Hartford (c. 1791)
c. 1791

View on the West Mountain near Hartford

While most think of Trumbull firstly as a portrait and history painter, he painted several landscapes. The painting was first dated by the Frick Art Reference Library as either 1806 or 1816, while Yale University Art Gallery (the painting's permanent home) dates it as early as c. 1791. In either case, author Bryan Wolf argues that the painting can be viewed as, "the first sustained effort at landscape painting by an American artist". The painting features a lone farmer, with only the sheep and cattle as company, who sits in a field looking upward into the great expanse of sky. It is believed to have been painted at "Monte Video", a country estate on Talcott Mountain near Hartford, Connecticut, owned by the artist's brother-in-law, Daniel Wadsworth.

According to the Yale Gallery, Trumbull "reported that this site [...] had been 'calculated to make a delightful and magnificent country residence.' He portrays it in terms of the young nation's pastoral ideal. [...] Trumbull's view foretells the romantic aesthetic of American landscape painting that would rise to prominence in the second quarter of the nineteenth century".

There is an element of the sublime in this work that preempts the work of the mid-19th century Hudson River School. In fact, Trumbull offered support and reassurance to a young and self-doubting Thomas Cole (one of the founders of the movement). As Crystal Toscano of the New York Historical Society writes, it was "thanks to [...] Trumbull, the renowned artist of the American Revolution, that Cole would receive the praise, criticism, and study he does today. The effusive compliment [Trumbull] extended to Cole could not have been paid to a man less certain of his ability. His early years as a landscape painter were blighted by doubt. On July 15, 1826, Cole was in the Catskills, a place he would later call his home. He writes to Trumbull describing 'scenery of the finest kind,' venerating the 'broad Hudson with its cultivated shores' and the Catskill Mountains 'ever changing in colour, light and shadow.' Despite these surroundings, Cole confided that he struggled to create".

Oil on canvas - Yale University Art Gallery, Norwich, Connecticut

George Washington before the Battle of Trenton (1792-1794)

George Washington before the Battle of Trenton

In this painting of George Washington, Trumbull depicts the then military leader during the Battle of Trenton. As the Yale University art Galley explains, "The commission had personal significance for Trumbull, for he had served as Washington's second aide-de-camp during the Revolution. Trumbull chose to convey the critical moment of Washington's leadership during the Revolutionary War when his night maneuvers at Trenton, New Jersey, led to a decisive victory at Princeton the following day, a major turning point of the war".

Trumbull held a life-long respect for Washington, and this admiration revealed itself in the 16 portraits he painted of America's first president in waiting during his career. In this work, which he considered "best of those of which I painted", rather than emphasizing Washington's military heroism by depicting him in active battle, Trumbull elects to present him as a symbol of stoicism and composure against the chaotic backdrop of war. Washington stands with hand on hip, looking pensive, while behind him his groom tries to control his nervous white horse ("Blueskin"). Washington is shown in full military uniform (a blue coat over waistcoat and trousers) while he holds a small telescope in his right hand, and a sword in his left. Further in the distance we see the bridge that spans the Assunpink Creek, a mill, and military campfires. Other soldiers are visible in the distance, one of whom waves a white flag.

This portrait was not completely to his clients' tastes, however. Indeed, according to the Yale Gallery, "the city of Charleston, South Carolina, commissioned [the portrait] for its city hall to commemorate the president's visit in May 1791. [...] In Trumbull's blend of history painting and portrait, the commander in chief epitomizes heroism and nobility, yet Charleston refused to accept it on the grounds that they preferred a more amiable and peaceful image. Trumbull produced another likeness of Washington, this time with the city in the background, which Charleston accepted". Trumbull also produced a much smaller version of this painting in London around 1794. The latter is true to the original, except for small changes to the background and to the horse's coloring. Trumbull later supervised its engraving with several other engravings having been made since.

Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

The Woman Taken in Adultery (1811)

The Woman Taken in Adultery

While not known for works in this genre, when he returned to his home in Connecticut in 1777 (during the Civil War) Trumbull painted several scenes from the Bible, antiquity, and mythology. Later, in 1808, Trumbull travelled London to seek treatment for his eye problems. He stayed in London until 1815, and during this time Trumbull painted many large scale paintings with religious themes (none of which were well-received by the British). In 1815, Trumbull was back in America and was soon appointed the President of the American Academy of Arts (a position he held for 19 years). He exhibited some of his religious works at the Academy but these were criticized by students who dismissed them as conservative and "out-of-touch" with current trends (indeed, the students rebelled against Trumbull's leadership and founded their own academy: the National Academy of Design).

Author Patricia Burnham writes, "in this painting, a beautiful young woman attired in glowing silks kneels in grateful supplication before the commanding figure of Christ. He does not return her gaze, but looks over her head into the crowd. Consternation fills the faces of the woman's accusers as they reflect on Christ's judgment on them and prepare to move away". Yet despite the painting's content, it is thought that Trumbull was an atheist. Indeed, this painting hints at a more personal, symbolic, meaning.

Taken from the gospel of John, this is a scene in which Jesus forgives the woman who has sinned and implores her accusers to look to their own behavior before passing judgment on others. It is now generally accepted that this work carries an autobiographical aspect, and alludes in fact to his relationship to his English wife. According to Brunham, "an aura of mystery has surrounded Trumbull's marriage to Sarah Hope Harvey ever since it had taken place in 1800. Among the many rumors circulated about her was one [...] to the effect that Sarah had met and fallen in love with Trumbull while she was married to someone else. Perhaps Trumbull seized the opportunity provided by the biblical episode to protest his wife's innocence". This being the case, then the soft, angelic like, rendering of the young woman (Sarah was 18 years her husband's junior) would suggest his wife modelled for the painting.

Oil on canvas - Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (1818 (placed 1826))
1818 (placed 1826)

The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Trumbull's most famous painting depicts the moment when the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to the Second Continental Congress in the Assembly Room in the Pennsylvania State House, Philadelphia. In the central grouping, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, places the document before the president of the Congress, John Hancock. They are flanked by other members of the committee: John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin.

The painting was conceived of on the prompting of Jefferson who Trumbull had met on a visit to Paris shortly after the Declaration had been ratified. However, while the painting is one of the most iconic American history paintings (It can be found on the $2 bill and was featured on postage stamps) it's historical accuracy has often been misconstrued. While Trumbull titled the painting The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, the presentation of the first draft actually occurred on June 28, 1776, while the Declaration itself was finally signed on August 2, 1776.

While in Paris, Trumbull also met with the French Neoclassical master, Jacques-Louis David, who he acknowledged as an important influence on his own work. But for the likes of historians such as Dr. Bryan Zygmont, the painting did not represent Trumbull's best work. He writes "To compare this image to those Trumbull began at the same time - the battle paintings of the Revolutionary War Series - is interesting, for while some of those are dynamic and filled with drama, The Declaration of Independence is, at its essence, a static - some might claim pictorially boring - image of a group of seated men looking at a group of standing men. Indeed, other artists - Jacques-Louis David comes to mind - were able to conceive a way to depict a similar event in a visually engaging way. David's sketch for the Oath of the Tennis Court, for example, is far more dynamic and dramatic than is Trumbull's painting. But this seemed not to matter to Trumbull, nor did it bother many members of Congress, for on 17 January 1817 they approved - by an overwhelming 150-50 majority - a proposal to commission Trumbull to complete four paintings for the Great Rotunda of the as yet uncompleted Capitol Building".

Oil on canvas - United States Capital, Washington, D.C.

The Resignation of General Washington, December 23, 1783 (1824)

The Resignation of General Washington, December 23, 1783

In a return to his grand historical painting's (after a long spell focused on portraiture), Trumbull depicts the moment when George Washington resigned his commission as General of the Revolutionary Army and returned home to his farm. Washington is depicted presenting his letter of resignation to the then President of Congress. The room is full of onlookers, most of whom seem in a state of shock at his decision. Washington, seems composed and stoical. The painting is rich in symbolism and, according to the Capitol website, "the action was significant for establishing civilian authority over the military, a fundamental principle of American democracy. Washington, illuminated by the light falling into the room, stands in uniform before the president of the Continental Congress, Thomas Mifflin, and the delegates, among whom is Thomas Jefferson. Behind Washington are his aides-de-camp, Col. Benjamin Walker and Col. David Humphreys, and spectators. The delegates and spectators direct their attention to Washington as he extends his right hand to return his commission. The empty chair draped in a cloak, suggestive of a throne covered with a king's robe, symbolizes Washington's act of retiring from his position of power".

This work is one of the four paintings Trumbull painted to be hung in the Capitol Rotunda: Declaration of Independence (1818), Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (1819), Surrender of General Burgoyne, (1821) and this, The Resignation of General Washington, the last to be completed, in 1824. The four canvases were installed in the Rotunda on July 4, 1826, to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration. In the 1830s, the art critic William Dunlap (a rival of Trumbull's since their days as Benjamin West's students) attacked Trumbull's historical paintings for being inaccurate and therefore lacking thematic credibility. However, Trumbull possessing a deep admiration for Washington, and went to great pains to render his figures with accuracy. As the Capitol website observes, "to depict accurately the figures in the painting, Trumbull copied miniatures he had painted previously, studied portraits by fellow artists, and contacted members of Congress for portraits of the delegates. He based the representation of George Washington on one of his own earlier portraits. Some figures not present at the actual event are shown, including James Madison and Martha Washington and her grandchildren, who appear in the gallery".

Oil on canvas - Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.

Biography of John Trumbull

Childhood and Education

The youngest of six children, John Trumbull was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, to Faith and Jonathan Trumbull Sr. His father was a General Assembly representative, and future Governor (after the War of Independence), of Connecticut, while his mother was a direct descendant of John Robinson, the so-called "Pastor to the Pilgrim-Fathers" (before they set sail on the Mayflower for the New World). When Trumbull was five years old, he fell down a flight of stairs resulting in a significant loss of sight in his left eye. Despite this serious early setback, he demonstrated great skill in, and fashion for, artmaking. He later recalled, "my taste for drawing began to dawn early ... and for several years the nicely sanded floors ... were constantly scrawled with my rude attempts at drawing".

Early Training

John Singleton Copley (pictured here in a <i>Self-portrait</i> dated 1769) had a profound influence on a young Trumbull.

Trumbull attempts to convince his parents that he would succeed as an artist, especially if he could study under the great portraitist John Singleton Copley, went unheard and, to please his parents, he agreed to study for a "proper" profession in Boston. As historian Dr. Bryan Zygmont writes, "Trumbull the Elder had little interest in allowing Trumbull the Younger to pursue a career as a painter. Instead, Governor Trumbull sent the artist-to-be to Harvard College so that his son could find a more useful vocation in either the law or the ministry". However, on his way to enroll at Harvard he and his father did make a small detour to visit Copley at his home (in Boston).

The visit made a lasting impression on Trumbull who recalled in his autobiography: "We found Mr. Copley dressed to receive a party of friends at dinner. I remember his dress and appearance - an elegant looking man, dressed in a fine maroon cloth, with gilt buttons - this was dazzling to my unpracticed eye! - but his paintings, the first I had ever seen deserving the name, riveted, absorbed my attention, and renewed all my desire to enter upon such a pursuit. But my destiny was fixed, and the next day I went to Cambridge, passed my [entrance examination], and was readily admitted to the Junior class". Trumbull clung to his dream of emulating his hero, however, and spent his free time at Harvard honing his technical skills by sketching copies of existing Copley portraits and paintings hung on the college walls.

Mature Period

After graduation Trumbull returned to the family home in Connecticut. But any hope of a smooth transition into the next phase of his career was abruptly interrupted by events on December 16, 1773. The Boston Tea Party was the name given to an anti-imperial uprising by the so-called "Sons of Liberty". The group targeted the British East India Company (who were trading without paying taxes apart from those going directly to the British colonial authorities) by destroying an entire shipment of the Company's tea. This historical event would be a key trigger point for the impending American War of Independence (1775-83).

In full support of the republican cause, and on the prompting of his brother Joseph (who was its Commissary General), Trumbull enlisted with the Continental Army (a coordinated military group comprised of the thirteen American colonies in the war against the British). General George Washington was the Army's commander-in-chief and, having presented an outline of the British army's position at Boston Neck, Washington appointed Trumbull his aide-de-camp (a confidential assistant). In the spring of 1776, Trumbull was promoted the rank of Colonel, but resigned his post within the year over a petty dispute with Congress over the start date of his tenure. Nevertheless, Trumbull carried the title "Colonel John Trumbull" for the rest of his life (indeed, his 1841 autobiography was titled, The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull). Trumbull duly left active service and returned home where he began to work once more on his art, and even gained some portrait commissions.

Benjamin West's influence on Trumbull can be seen in his history paintings including, <i>The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777</i> (1787-1831).

Tired of living under the shadow of his parents' disapproval, Trumbull moved to Boston where he continued to paint and, out of financial necessity, took on work at his brother's business selling tea and rum. Artistically unfulfilled in Boston, in 1780 Trumbull set sail for England where he would study (with fellow student, Gilbert Stuart) in the studio of Benjamin West. Some speculated his departure for Europe was cover for a clandestine political mission. As Zygmont writes, "the War of Independence was still in full swing, although nearing its completion. It must have caused suspicion that a former officer in the Continental Army has arrived in London to study painting, particularly because Benjamin West, as the official history painter to the court, had the ear and confidence of King George".

Trouble followed Trumbull who remained outspoken, in voice and in letters, in his support of his countrymen's fight for independence from British rule. As a result, on November 20, 1780, he was imprisoned for treason. West, and the Anglo-Irish stateman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, lobbied the Privy Council for his release which was granted in June 1781, but with the stipulation he leave Britain within 30 days. Back in Connecticut he came under pressure from his father once more to pursue a more honorable profession. Trumbull worked with his brother David as an army supplier in New Windsor, a small town on the Hudson River, but remained dedicated to a life in art and returned to London two years later where his resumed his tutorship under West.

<i>Self Portrait</i> (1777). Still seeking his father's approval, Trumbull wrote to him in 1785: “the great object of my wishes is to take up the History of Our Country, and paint the principal Events particular of the late War”.

Trumbull arrived back London in January 1784. West was a strict disciplinarian and following a full day's study (which started at 5 AM), Trumbull was expected to attend lectures at the Royal Academy. He was a diligent student and made good progress under West's guidance. His first major work, The Deputation from the Senate Presenting to Cincinnatus the Command of the Roman Armies, was displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts later that year. Trumbull soon earned a reputation as a consummate portrait painter, too, and made enough money to support himself through steady commissions. But his real yearning was to be a history painter of the stature of West and, in 1786, commenced preparatory work on several Revolutionary battlefield paintings including: The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776; The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19; 1781, The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775; and The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, 17 June, 1775.

In July 1786 Trumbull visited Paris where he met with the US Ambassador to France, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and future US president, Thomas Jefferson. Having shown Jefferson his work on Attack on Quebec, and Battle of Bunker's Hill, Jefferson suggested to Trumbull he might consider a history painting to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, Trumbull started to produce preparatory sketches based on Jefferson's description of the setting (the Assembly Room in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia) and events leading up to the signing of the historical document. Their friendship was strengthened when Trumbull introduced Jefferson to the Italian painter Maria Cosway with whom he shared a lifelong romance. While in Paris Trumbull also met the esteemed Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David whose Oath of the Tennis Court (1791) would have a direct bearing on the composition of The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, Trumbull's most famous painting (was finally completed over thirty years later).

Trumbull painted George Washington several times over the course of his career. <i>Washington at Verplanck's Point</i> (1790) depicts the military leader during the Revolutionary War in Trenton after the Battle of the Assunpink Creek.

Having returned to a newly independent America in 1789, Trumbull pursued his art with vigor. According to author Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque, "his avowed purpose was the collecting of likenesses, topographical information, architectural data, and other visual material for his projected series of Revolutionary War paintings". He also took on several important portrait commissions, including General George Washington, and Founding Father John Adams, to support himself financially. Despite these prestigious commissions, Trumbull suffered from periods of doubt as to his abilities to make a success as an artist. It was a curse he struggled with throughout the rest of his life.

In 1794, following the untimely death of his cousin Harriet Wadsworth who he had planned to marry, Trumbull accepted an offer from John Jay to join him in London as chief secretary on the so-called "Jay Treaty Commission" (the "Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America" to give it its bloated title). While on a diplomatic assignment in France (the French were strongly opposed to the Treaty), he became the subject of suspicion by the French government and had to rely on the testimonial of his friend, Jacques-Louis David, to secure his safe return to England.

Trumbull's portrait of his wife, <i>Sarah Trumbull with a Spaniel</i> (c. 1802).

Safely back in London, and while continuing in his diplomatic role, Trumbull began to turn to his art once more. This may well have been inspired by his marriage to Sarah Hope Harvey, an English amateur painter, in the autumn of 1800. Although this displeased his parents (Sarah was 18 years Trumbull's junior and from a lesser social standing) their marriage was extremely happy. The couple never had children, but Sarah supported her husband when he learned that he had fathered an illegitimate son with a young servant (while living at his brother's house in London) and agreed to provide financial support for the boy's education.

Later Period

In 1804, his diplomatic work done, Trumbull returned to America. He initial plan was to settle in Boston but when he learned that his old friend Gilbert Stuart intended to move there from his base in Washington - "Boston ... did by no means offer an adequate field of success for two rival artists" he later wrote in his biography - Trumbull opted instead for New York City. In New York his focus shifted from history painting to portraiture but he also developed a growing interest in landscape painting that saw him undertake sketching trips to Upstate New York and Eastern Canada. It was during these excursions that Trumbull was inspired to create his Niagara Falls paintings. Historian Kathleen L. Butler writes, "[Trumbull] is considered one of the first professional American artists to adopt landscape as a subject, if only for a short time. The style of his intimate paintings is similar to Thomas Cole's early works and has been described as proto-Romantic for its depiction of the untamed landscape. Trumbull took a different approach to Niagara Falls: it was a national symbol, and his paintings [of the falls] depict a civilized sublime peopled with serene figures".

During this period he also made the personal acquaintance of Cole. Crystal Toscano of the New York Historical Society writes, "An anonymous writer (none other than theater producer, fellow artist, and chronicler William Dunlap) wrote to the New-York Evening Post about the circumstances of their singular meeting. By his recollection, Colonel Trumbull visited the shop of art dealer George W. Dixey, and upon finding three landscape paintings of Cole's, exclaimed 'where did this come from!' He 'continued gazing, almost incapable of understanding the answer': The paintings were done by an unknown young man with no formal training or expertise. 'What I now purchase for 25 dollars I would not part with for 25 guineas,' he said afterwards. Today, he would have bought the painting for about $560 - but would not have parted with it for over $3,000. 'I am delighted, and at the same time mortified. This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I cannot do after 50 years' practice.' Colonel Trumbull was referring to his [own] difficulty with landscape painting". In 1805, Trumbull was appointed the president of the New York Academy of Fine Arts, a position he held until 1808.

Effectively blind in his left eye since early childhood, when the vision in his right eye began to fail him, Trumbull travelled to London in 1808 to seek medical treatment. This highly troubling period in his life perhaps accounts for his renewed interest in religious painting. Some art historians also believe that it was perhaps because Trumbull did not have full sight in both eyes, he enjoyed success as a miniaturist painter. However, as Butler explains, in London Trumbull also "intended to use his paintings of Niagara Falls as the basis of a panorama [and he] sought out [Irish born painter] Robert Barker, who had popularized the form, to create a panorama based upon those paintings". (Barker had opened the Leicester Square Panorama in 1793, a hugely popular public spectacle that consisted of 360-degree landscape scenes. Painted on the inside of a huge cylinder, the public was immersed in famous battles or foreign cities.) But, as Butler concludes, "Barker refused, even after Trumbull imposed upon West to take up his request", and Trumbull continued to scrape a living as a portrait and miniaturist painter. With his financial situation becoming increasingly precarious, the Trumbulls returned home in 1815, settling in New York City.

Despite his excursions into portrait and landscape painting, Trumbull never gave up his interest in history painting. Indeed, Trumbull believed his best hope of easing his money woes was to pursue a commission, based on a set of smaller originals he had painted at the end of the eighteenth century, to paint four large pictures for the rotunda of the Capitol building at Washington D. C. (which was still under construction). With the backing of his old acquaintance, Thomas Jefferson, he was commissioned by the U.S. Congress in 1817 to paint: The Declaration of Independence (1818), The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown (1819-20), The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga (1821), and The Resignation of General Washington (1824). Trumbull's paintings were exhibited in different venues around the country before they were placed in their permanent home at Capitol in 1828. He earned the then handsome sum of $8,000 for each painting.

Trumbull was instrumental in the designing of the Trumbull Gallery at Yale University in 1832. The building is the small Neoclassical structure on the left.

Also in 1817, Trumbull was elected president (until 1836) of American Academy of the Fine Arts. Zygmont writes that Trumbull "had become one of the most powerful voices - if not one of the more skilled paintbrushes - in American art during the first half of the nineteenth century. [...] Without doubt, this position helped him receive the prestigious [Capitol] commission in 1817 and allowed him to exert considerable influence over the direction of American art during the end of his career". Trumbull suffered great personal loss in April 1824 when his beloved wife, Sarah, died at just 50 years of age. The following year his leadership of the Academy was directly challenged by some of the younger members (including Thomas Cole) who felt he did not support their interests and left to form the National Academy of Design (in 1825).

Trumbull secured his own legacy through the creation of a gallery dedicated to his art. According to the Yale University, the Trumbull Gallery (now the Yale University Art Gallery) "was founded in 1832 when [...] Trumbull sold 28 paintings and 60 miniature portraits to the University. Trumbull himself designed the Neoclassical building to exhibit the works. When [the gallery] opened to the public on October 25, 1832, it became the first college art museum in the United States".

Despite his many achievements, Trumbull continued to face financial difficulties. In 1837, in an attempt to alleviate this difficult situation, he began work on his autobiography, a first for an American artist. To his great disappointment, when it was published four years later the book was a commercial flop. With his health having been in decline for several years, Trumbull died in December of 1843 at the age of eighty-seven. According to his wishes, he was buried next to Sarah beneath the Trumbull Gallery's floor, and directly beneath one of his paintings of his great political hero, George Washington.

The Legacy of John Trumbull

Reverse of the US two dollar bill. Historian Bryan Zygmont writes, “While the <i>Declaration of Independence</i> might not be the most interesting work within the history of American painting, it certainly is one of the most recognizable”.

Trumbull's best-known works, especially the four works that grace the United States Capitol rotunda, have earned him the epithet "painter of the Revolution". An accomplished portrait and landscape painter, Trumbull's greatest legacy is perhaps best represented through his achievements as a chronicler of key battles during one of the most decisive periods in America's history. According to author Jules David Prown, "the purpose of [Trumbull's] Revolutionary War series was didactic, to promulgate the values of the Revolutionary generation as the heritage of all Americans. And his benefaction to Yale [through the creation of his Trumbull Gallery] had the same fundamental purpose, to enlighten future generations of students in regard to the values of the past".

Much in demand for his portraiture, Trumbull painted some of the most influential political figures of the age, not least George Washington. Trumbull's authoritative, and often understated, approach to his subjects influenced future generation painters such as William Jewett and Samuel Lovett Waldo. He also created several spectacular landscape paintings that were the first to capture the majesty of the Eastern Coast of America and led circuitously to the formation of the Hudson River School. These landscapes were, according to author Bryan Wolf, "the first sustained effort at landscape painting by an American artist [and it was] Trumbull who first made [Thomas] Cole known to a large public [and helped] launch Cole upon his early career".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
John Trumbull
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Thomas Cole
    Thomas Cole
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    Thomas Jefferson
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    Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun
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    Benjamin Silliman
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    George Washington
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Thomas Cole
    Thomas Cole
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    Thomas Jefferson
  • No image available
    Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun
  • No image available
    Benjamin Silliman
  • No image available
    George Washington
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on John Trumbull

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"John Trumbull Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Available from:
First published on 21 Dec 2023. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]
The Art Story
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