On this day in 1756, the so-called “Patriot-Artist of the Revolution” is born in Connecticut. You may know of John Trumbull’s many famous paintings, but did you also know that he was arrested as a prisoner of war during the American Revolution?
John Trumbull was born to a prominent family in Connecticut. His father, Governor Jonathan Trumbull, hoped that his son would attend Harvard and enter the ministry. Presumably, he didn’t quite know what to do when the younger Trumbull wanted to become an artist?!
Nevertheless, Trumbull went to Harvard, as his father hoped—and then the war intervened.
Soon after shots rang out at Lexington and Concord, Trumbull enlisted in the army. He briefly served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington and even attained the rank of colonel, but he never saw direct combat.
The aspiring artist resigned his commission in 1777. He would soon begin his art education in earnest.
Trumbull hoped to study under Benjamin West, an American-born artist then in Europe. It was the middle of the war, but Trumbull went to London anyway. He was just beginning his studies abroad in 1780 when London learned about the execution of British Major John André, Benedict Arnold’s accomplice.
Trumbull had been “perfectly secure under the name of an artist” in London, until this news arrived. Unfortunately, as Trumbull later wrote, some “had interest enough to persuade the ministry that I was a dangerous person, in the service of Dr. Franklin . . . . I had no idea of the storm; was apprehended at midnight.”
Despite this innocuous explanation, some historians suggest that Trumbull may actually have been a spy for Benjamin Franklin. Either way, he was arrested and imprisoned for months. He was eventually released on the condition that he leave London until peace was declared.
Trumbull was stuck, unable to complete his formal training. But in a twist of irony, he would eventually return to London after the war—and he would begin some of his famous paintings of the American Revolution in that city.
At least one person appreciated the effort. Upon seeing “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill,” Abigail Adams reported that “in looking at it, my whole frame contracted, my Blood Shiverd and I felt a faintness at my Heart. He is the first painter who has undertaking to immortalize by his Pencil those great actions; that gave Birth to our Nation.”
Trumbull accepted a few diplomatic roles in the decades after the war, but painting was his passion. He spent years traveling and visiting various Revolutionary-era players because he wanted to depict them accurately. He wrote Jefferson of the effort that he put into the Declaration of Independence painting. “The picture will contain Portraits of at least Fortyseven Members,” he wrote, “for the faithful resemblance of Thirty Six I am responsible as they were done by myself from the Life.”
His crowning achievement came in 1817, when he was commissioned to “compose and execute four paintings commemorative of the most important events of the America Revolution, to be placed, when finished, in the capitol of the United States.” Trumbull submitted large scale paintings of the Declaration of Independence, Surrender of General Burgoyne, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and General George Washington Resigning His Commission to Congress.
Trumbull once wrote that the “greatest motive 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.”
And isn’t that exactly what he did?
Irma B Jaffe, John Trumbull, Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution (1975)
John Ferguson Weir, John Trumbull: A Brief Sketch of His Life, to which is Added a Catalogue of His Works (1901)
John Trumbull, Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters of John Trumbull, from 1756 to 1841 (1841)
Morgan Sumrell, John Trumbull: Art and Politics in the Revolution (Journal of the American Revolution; Jan. 28, 2013)