John Trumbull, Painter of the American Revolution

John Trumbull painting of The Declaration of Independence
"The Declaration of Independence" by John Trumbull.

Culture Club / Getty Images

John Trumbull was an early American painter known for his depictions of historical events related to the Revolutionary War. He was personally acquainted with many of the principle figures of the Revolution, having spent two years as an officer in the colonial army, which included a stint as a military aide to General George Washington.

Trumbull's paintings tended to capture the drama of warfare and significant events including the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. Images created by Trumbull, including a set of large murals which adorn the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, have defined how many Americans visualize the earliest days of the nation.

Fast Facts: John Trumbull

  • Known For: Artist who devoted himself to painting scenes from the American Revolution
  • Born: June 6, 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut
  • Died: November 10, 1843, New York, New York
  • Parents: Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. and Faith Robinson Trumbull
  • Spouse: Sarah Hope Harvey
  • Education: Harvard College
  • Most Famous Works: Four immense paintings hanging today in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol: "The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga," "The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown," "The Declaration of Independence," and "The Resignation of Washington."

Early Life and Military Career

John Trumbull was born June 6, 1756. As the son of Connecticut's colonial governor, he grew up in a privileged environment.

Trumbull lost the use of one eye in a childhood accident, yet he was determined to learn to paint. He took some painting lessons from John Singleton Copley before attending Harvard. After graduating from Harvard at the age of 17, he taught school while trying to learn more about art.

John Trumbull
John Trumbull - Scanned 1855 Engraving. benoitb / Getty Images

As the American Revolution began, Trumbull became involved and enlisted in the Continental Army. George Washington had seen some of Trumbull's sketches of enemy positions and took him on as an aide. Trumbull served in the army for two years before resigning in 1777.

In 1780 Trumbull sailed for France. His ultimate destination, however, was London, where he intended to study with the painter Benjamin West. He traveled to London, where he began studies with West, but in November 1780 he was arrested by the British as an American rebel. Upon his release he returned to the continent, and then back to Boston.

Painting the Revolution

Following the end of the Revolutionary War, in late 1783, Trumbull made his way back to London and to West's studio. He spent two years painting classical subjects before embarking on what would become his life's work: painting scenes of the American Revolution.

John Trumbull painting of Battle of Bunker Hill
"The Death of General Warren at Bunker's Hill" by John Trumbull. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Trumbull's first effort, "The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill" featured the death of one of the great heroes of the American cause, Boston physician and patriot leader Dr. Joseph Warren. The painting, which was completed in the spring of 1786 under the tutelage of Benjamin West, was influenced by West's own painting, "The Death of General Wolfe at Quebec."

The painting of the climactic action at Bunker Hill was noteworthy as Trumbull had been present that day, so in part he was painting from his own memory. Yet he included details that he admitted were inaccurate, such as a British officer trying to shield Warren. He justified that by noting that the officer had shown kindness to American prisoners.

Return to America

After leaving England and spending two years in France, he eventually returned to America in 1789. During the period when the federal government was based in Philadelphia he painted portraits of national figures. For a painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence he traveled to sketch men who had been present in 1776 (despite this attention to detail, his eventual painting included some men who had not been present).

In the early 1790s, Trumbull took a job working as the private secretary to John Jay. While working for Jay he returned to Europe, eventually returning to America for good in 1804.

Trumbull continued to paint, and a cataclysmic event, the 1814 burning of the U.S. Capitol by the British, led to his greatest commission. As the federal government contemplated rebuilding the Capitol, he was hired to paint four enormous paintings to decorate the rotunda. Each would measure 12 by 18 feet, and would feature scenes from the Revolution.

The four paintings, which hang in the Capitol's rotunda today, are "The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga," "The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown," "The Declaration of Independence," and "The Resignation of Washington." The subject matter was carefully chosen, as it deliberately included two great military victories balanced by the presentation of the Revolutionary ideals to the Continental Congress and the return of the nation's heroic warrior, Washington, to civilian life.

President Johnson before a John Trumbull painting
President Johnson speaking in front of a John Trumbull painting in the Capitol rotunda in 1965.  

The large paintings were based on smaller originals completed years earlier, and art critics have maintained that the enormous versions in the Capitol are flawed. However, they have become iconic, and periodically serve as the backdrop to noteworthy public events.

Legacy

In 1831 the elderly Trumbull donated his unsold paintings to Yale College, and designed a building to house them, thus creating the first American college art gallery. He published an autobiography in 1841, and died in 1843, at the age of 87.

Trumbull's paintings have lived on as symbols of America's patriot spirit, and generations of Americans have essentially seen the American Revolution through his paintings.

Sources:

  • "John Trumbull." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 15, Gale, 2004, pp. 316-317. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Selesky, Harold E. "Trumbull, John." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, edited by Harold E. Selesky, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 1167-1168. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Trumbull, John (1756–1843)." American Eras, vol. 4: Development of a Nation, 1783-1815, Gale, 1997, pp. 66-67. Gale Virtual Reference Library.