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Trumbull, John (1756–1843), painter and diplomat, was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, America, on 6 June 1756. He was the youngest of the six children of , a shipowner and later governor of Connecticut (1769–84), and his wife, Faith Robinson (1718–1780), daughter of John Robinson. He attended Harvard College and, while there, visited John Singleton Copley in Boston. After graduating in 1773, he served with the Connecticut 1st regiment in the early months of the American War of Independence, acting as personal aide to George Washington and attaining the rank of colonel. Having resigned from the army in 1777, he joined his brother's tea and rum business two years later.

In 1780, having travelled to Europe to undertake an abortive financial project for family and friends, Trumbull went to London to study under Benjamin West but—in the wake of the Major André affair—he was arrested, imprisoned as a spy, and forced to leave the country. After negotiating a loan in Amsterdam for the state of Connecticut he returned home, but went back to England in 1784 to continue his strict daily regime in West's studio. He spent evenings attending classes at the Royal Academy and exhibited sixteen paintings there between 1784 and 1818 as well as seven at the British Institution between 1810 and 1813.

In 1785 Trumbull wrote to his father: ‘the great object of my wishes … is to take up the History of Our Country’ (Cooper, Trumbull, 7). He commenced his series of scenes from the American War of Independence, encouraged by Thomas Jefferson, whom he first met in Paris in that year. Paintings such as The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill (1786; Yale University Art Gallery) and The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec (1786; Yale University Art Gallery) clearly reveal the influence of both West and Copley in their choice of modern subject matter, composition, and use of the sublime. In 1787 he travelled again to Paris to paint Jefferson's portrait for inclusion in The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar (1787; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC).

On his return to America in 1789 Trumbull travelled along the east coast to paint portraits of the participants in the war. However, following the death of his cousin, Harriet Wadsworth, to whom he had proposed, he took up an offer to serve as secretary with the Jay treaty commission in London. There he met and married, in 1800, Sarah Hope Harvey (1774–1824), herself an amateur fruit and flower painter. Their marriage remained childless, but Trumbull accepted responsibility for an illegitimate boy, John Trumbull Ray, born in Connecticut.

Trumbull returned to England for a fourth time in 1808 in search of treatment for his failing eyesight. Because of the tensions between the two countries, which eventually resulted in the Anglo-American War, Americans were not popular, and Trumbull received few commissions, fell into debt, and went back to New York. In 1817 congress passed a resolution to commission Trumbull to decorate the rotunda of the Capitol with four historical murals, ‘commemorative of the most important events of the American Revolution’ (Cooper, 15). Of these the best known is his depiction of the declaration of independence (purchased in 1819 and installed in the Capitol in 1826). The image has been much reproduced and has appeared on the reverse of the two-dollar note since 1976. In 1817 he was also elected president of the American Academy of the Fine Arts, a post he held for nineteen years. However, his financial problems continued and he sold his collection of his own works to Yale College for an annuity in 1831. To house these, he co-designed the Trumbull Gallery with the assistance of Ithiel Town and A. J. Davis. The only other surviving example of his forays into architecture is the neo-classical meeting-house in Lebanon (1804).

Trumbull's autobiography was published in 1841, the first by an American artist. He died in New York on 10 November 1843. He was buried with his wife in the Trumbull Gallery and his memorial tablet is inscribed: ‘To his country he gave his sword and his pencil’.

Kate Retford

Sources  

H. A. Cooper, John Trumbull: the hand and spirit of a painter (New Haven, 1982) · The autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull, ed. T. Sizer (1953) · E. G. Miles and others, American paintings of the eighteenth century (1995), 298–9 [catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC] · I. B. Jaffe, Trumbull: the declaration of independence (1976) · M. Baigell, Dictionary of American art (1979), 357–8 · G. C. Croce and D. H. Wallace, The New York Historical Society's dictionary of artists in America, 1564–1860, 2nd edn (1964), 637–8 · T. Sizer, The works of Colonel John Trumbull, 2nd edn (1967) · I. B. Jaffe, ‘Trumbull, John’, ANB · H. A. Cooper, ‘Trumbull, John’, The dictionary of art, ed. J. Turner (1996) · B. Stewart and M. Cutten, The dictionary of portrait painters in Britain up to 1920 (1997), 456 · Graves, RA exhibitors · Graves, Brit. Inst. · Waterhouse, 18c painters

Archives  

Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, family papers · Connecticut State Library, Hartford, family papers · Yale U., MS letters and documents


Likenesses  

J. Trumbull, self-portrait, 1777 · A. Robertson, miniature on ivory, 1815 · G. Stuart, portrait, 1818, Yale U. Art Gallery; repro. in T. Sizer, ed., Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull, frontispiece · S. Lovett Waldo and W. Jewett, portrait, c.1821, Yale U. Art Gallery; repro. in T. Sizer, ed., Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull, 256