“You had better learn to make shoes,” said the venerable Colonel Trumbull, one day, to a stripling who was consulting him in reference to his choice of painting as a profession, “better learn to make shoes or dig potatoes than to become a painter in this country.” (IV. Letter on Landscape Painting by Asher B. Durand, opening sentence)
John Trumbull, also known as the “Painter of the American Revolution”, was born June 6, 1756, in Lebanon, CT, and died in New York City on November 10, 1843, and he was a soldier in the Revolutionary War before he turned to painting as a profession. Both is somewhat surprising because John Trumbull lost the use of one eye when he was young. But a soldier and a painter he became nonetheless.
During the Revolutionary Warm he was aide-de-camp of General George Washington for 19 days in 1775. Unsurprisingly, we find him painting General Washington, like in this one, for example:
Portraits and historic scenes were his genre, and it stands to reason that his most famous painting from 1819 has as its motive the signing of the Declaration of Independence:
Featured, you find (slightly cropped) his Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, from 1820. This painting shows Generals Charles O’Hara and Benjamin Lincoln in the center, with the forces of British Major General Charles Cornwallis (not himself present) surrendering to French and American forces after the Siege of Yorktown (September 28 – October 19, 1781). The United States government commissioned Trumbull to paint patriotic paintings, including this piece, for them in 1817.
What caught my eye in particular in these paintings were the expressions on the faces because when it comes to details, John Trumbull reminds me a lot of Asher Durand, only that his field of study was people rather than landscapes. A portrait of John Trumbull (an engraving) can be found among Durand’s works, as John Trumbull was an important, early patron of Durand and did commission Durand to engrave some of Trumbull’s best paintings, like the Declaration (see above). I guess they say the two became friends. So the connection is not at all far fetched.
Now, going back to the quote above, one has to wonder why two so famous and obviously successful painters would not necessarily have encouraged aspiring young artists to follow in their footsteps. Obviously, love of detail comes at a price.
To round off this little peek at America’s foremost painter of historical scenes, I would like to offer a little mystery in the form of two portraits John Trumbull did, one of a Lady in White, and the other a self-portrait.
Have a look at them:
And the other:
They strike me as mysterious because they look very much alike, so much so that I am thinking the two persons depicted must be family. But Trumbull never married or had children, so this young Lady in White wasn’t his daughter. Maybe it was a niece. Or maybe the resemblance lies primarily in the way both of them are looking at their audience… Intriguing!
Incidentally: There seems to be only one place where you can find the portrait of the Lady in White online, with no other information relating to the painting than the title.