The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton December 26 1776 -- John Trumbull
As we approach the presidential inauguration, John Trumbull's name comes to mind. Usually when we picture early American painters they are folk artists, unschooled and untrained with only a scant knowledge of perspective. Some of their work might remind one not only of the hobbyist in the hamlet one mile down the road who likes to paint pictures but also see at times traces of medieval work. Although I have seen exquisite examples of the latter so precise and meticulous in detail that it makes me wonder about the sophistication of their craft. An example which always comes to mind is that of a rosary portraying the last supper carved out of boxwood as part of the permanent collection of New York's Cloisters. Ah, but my memory has betrayed me. It was not the last supper but a triptych of microscopically carved figures: the Journey to Nazareth and the Nativity, the Journey to Nazareth and the Adoration of the Magi, and Presentation in the Temple. This piece was of Northern European origin and created in a period more towards the Renaissance than the Middle Ages. But such craftsmanship did not emerge from a vacuum as if suspended in a bubble over time's arrow.
1500–1510. South Netherlandish. Boxwood
When we look at early Americana, we are reminded of the portraits of John Brewster Jr. or those of Edward Hicks or the stiff wooden figures of Ammi Phillips. Yet each of them blew life into their creations. Their portraits stare back at us and onto eternity. America was inventing herself from scratch, but there were highly trained artists among them. The father of American painting was Benjamin West who through the backing of several Philadelphia patrons send him to Europe in 1760. There he tarried in Italy for three years absorbing its aesthetic ambiance before arriving in London where he was adopted as Britain's leading painter. Unanimously elected to the Royal Academy as their second president, West served that venerable institution for twenty-eight years and played a centrally important role of instructing and mentoring early American painters. Among his students was none other than John Trumbull. Among the panoply of Early American greats were the likes of Gilbert Stuart perhaps best known for is portrait of George Washington, John Singleton Copley, Rembrandt Peale, and Thomas Sully. Two inventors with artistic leanings were included in West's list of students: Robert Fulton and Samuel F. B. Morse.
At that time landscape painting was considered a low art. Portraiture was a bit higher. The highest visual art subject matter was that of historical painting for which most of these artists were known. However one should take note that as a mentor, Benjamin West had advised John Constable to give up portrait painting and devote his time to landscapes. Perhaps this advise had paid off as he became known as one of Britain's greatest landscapists and much admired later on by no other than the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix.
General George Washington Resigning His Commission 1822-24 -- John Trumbull
John Trumbull attended Harvard University where he was not only exposed to European history but to the portraits that hung in its halls. His love for painting may have been born on campus. When he returned to his hometown of Lebanon, Connecticut, he picked up the brush and resumed painting. However war interrupted his plans and aspirations briefly serving in the Continental Army as an officer in Connecticut's First Regiment witnessing the battle of Bunker Hill. He continued to aid the war effort as a cartographer. And although he fought Britain upholding the right of the thirteen colonies for independence, he traveled to England in1780 for the noble purpose of studying art. Again, he traveled to London four years later. In both instances he journeyed to London to study under Benjamin West who encouraged Trumbull to paint contemporary themes in particular the events that had just unfolded in the founding of a country.
Trumbull wanted to depict the founding moments of the United States and executed eight works on the Revolutionary War with the purpose in mind to impart what had transpired for generations to come of a period in history which shone a light on individual liberty and human progress. Today we might think of this episode which brought about an independent country in not so lofty terms. However, the mindset of those days was the onward march of reason permeating society through the rule of law and effective governance that would be the epicenter of a contagion of similar changes witnessed later on in Europe with the French storming the Bastille.
Signing the Declaration of Independence 28th June 1776 1817 -- John Trumbull
A second edition adorns the Capitol's rotunda, but in 1831 a third and final series was never completed due to Trumbull's failing health. Five of the eight paintings for the third series were completed. These works are currently on display at Connecticut's Wadsworth Atheneum. Daniel Wadsworth founded the museum on his father's estate. His father Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth had George Washington as his guest in his home in Hartford. He was Commissary General to the Continental Army and later stepped into politics. His only son Daniel was an art patron who by founding this museum helped preserve the birth of American art now featuring a part of the oeuvre of John Trumbull who was a friend of the family. His niece married Daniel Wadsworth.
Trustees to the museum had purchased the five last paintings of the American Revolution third series and were put on display at the Atheneum's opening in 1844. I always ask what legacy a famous artist leaves behind. The obvious answer would be his or her oeuvre – the body of work. But such work would have to be seen by the public for a society to cherish them. People would be hard put to value that which never sees the light of day and that which remains locked in safes or buried in cellars or seen only by a privileged few. Alongside the artist's output as a legacy there is also its accessibility by a viewing public.
Yorktown Surrenders -- John Trumbull
Artists also leave behind other bequeathals. In the case of Robert Douglas Hunter, for instance, he left behind not only valuable still lifes but the fond memories of his students who benefited from his critiques and passed onto the the next generation of pupils his understanding of the fine arts. The artist as instructor leaves behind not only a student body but the content of his lessons. Loyal disciples remember and reiterate the salient points of painting that they struggled to master under his tutelage.
Trumbull had students as president of New York City's American Academy of Fine Arts, but unlike Hunter his students balked at his demands many of them withdrawing from his courses in 1825. The academy closed some fourteen years later on account of changes in popular taste for the visual arts and a fire that destroyed its permanent collection. While his students had turned against his heavy handed approach to painting, his inspiration remains for artists aspiring to bring life to history. Perhaps then his legacy is only found in his body of work commemorating a time and place in human history where a country far from moral perfection was founded on ideals upon which few had thought possible. His work therefore stands as a monument for those formative years.
The Sortie Made by the Garrison of Gibraltar by John Trumbull 1788
American Art Review Kellaway, Thomas R. ed. & publisher. John Trumbull: Visualizing American Independence pp. 64-67. American Arts Media, Inc. Leawood, Kansas. February 2017.