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John Trumbull

American, 1756 - 1843

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John Trumbull is known for his portraits and history paintings of the leaders and events of the American Revolution. Born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, he graduated from Harvard College in 1773 and served with the Connecticut First Regiment in the early months of the revolution. He began his painting career in 1777. He went to England to study briefly with Benjamin West in 1780, returning in 1784 for a longer period. The critical era of his life, and that of his finest work, was from 1784 to 1794. In March 1785 he wrote to his father, Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., that "the great object of my to take up the History of Our Country, and paint the principal Events particularly of the late War." (Connecticut Historical Society, quoted in Cooper 1982, 7) Influenced by the work of West and Copley, he completed his first history painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill (Yale University Art Gallery), in March 1786. He began the composition of The Declaration of Independence (Yale University Art Gallery) while visiting Thomas Jefferson in Paris that July. There he also visited private paintings collections and met Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Antoine Houdon, travelling to Germany and the Low Countries before going back to London.

Trumbull returned to the United States in the fall of 1789. For the next four years he 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.

In 1794, after the death of his cousin Harriet Wadsworth (1769- 1793), whom he wished to marry, he accepted an offer from John Jay to serve as secretary with the Jay Treaty Commission in London. He resumed his painting career in England in 1800, the year he married Sarah Hope Harvey. He returned to the United States in 1804, planning to settle in Boston. When he learned that Gilbert Stuart intended to move there from Washington, he went instead to New York, thinking that "Boston...did by no means offer an adequate field of success for two rival artists" (Autobiography, 1841, quoted in Cooper 1982, 13). His portraits from this period were influential on the work of younger American artists. He was elected to the board of directors of the New York Academy of the Fine Arts (later the American Academy of the Fine Arts). However the economic consequences of the Embargo Act of 1807, restricting foreign trade, cut short his success. He left in 1808 for Connecticut, and then for a sketching trip through New York State and eastern Canada. He had been blinded in one eye in a childhood accident, and returned to England with is wife in 1809 for treatment of his failing eyesight. Some observers, including contemporaries, attribute Trumbull's particular success with small-scale paintings to this lack of full eyesight.

Trumbull and his wife returned to America at the end of the War of 1812. In 1817 he received a commission for four large history paintings for the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington. That same year he was elected President of the American Academy of the Fine Arts, which under his strict guidance came in the 1820's to represent an older, more traditional group of artists. He completed the Capitol pictures in 1824. When he failed to receive further federal commissions, he turned again to portraiture. In difficult financial straits, he offered his painting collection to Yale College in return for an annuity. The offer was accepted in 1831 and the Trumbull Gallery opened the following year. His autobiography, written after he retired from the presidency of the academy in 1836, recalls his long career. He died in New York at the age of eighty-seven in 1843. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

Artist Bibliography

Sizer 1967.
Jaffe, Irma B. John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution. Boston, 1975.
Prown, Jules David. "John Trumbull as History Painter." In Cooper, Helen A., ed. John Trumbull; the Hand and Spirit of a Painter. Exh. cat. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1982: 22-41.
Rodriquez Roque, Oswaldo. "Trumbull's Portraits." In Cooper, Helen A., ed. John Trumbull; the Hand and Spirit of a Painter. Exh. cat. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1982: 94-105.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 298-299.

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