John Trumbull: Declaration of Independence


Today is the birthday of the great American heroic painter John Trumbull (1756-1843). I am distantly related to this artist; we both count the Pilgrims John and Priscilla Alden among our ancestors. Trumbull was from Lebanon, Connecticut, not far from where I grew up.

That Trumbull should come to be one of the premier memorializers of the American Revolution is not surprising, given that he and his family played crucial roles in the events. His father Jonathan, Sr. was Governor of Connecticut and a major supporter of Washington. His brother, Jonathan Jr. would also be Governor, and was a secretary to Washington. His other brother Joseph was a delegate to the Continental Congress and served as a major in the Continental Army. A nephew, also named Joseph (son of Jonathan, Jr.) was also Governor of the state.

John Trumbull himself was an officer in the Continental Army and an aide to General Washington. But after a dispute about his rank he resigned in 1780, and — this blows my mind — went to study painting with Benjamin West in London! This was still the height of the Revolutionary War. That such a thing would be possible is quite an eye opener. But, if you think of it, Great Britain did not recognize America’s Declaration of Independence as legitimate. From their point of view, citizens of the colonies were still British subjects, and so such things would be permitted. From our point of view, it seems borderline traitorous…but it seems to me Trumbull redeemed himself with his art many times over. And, at any rate, the British jailed him in the wake of John Andre’s hanging anyway.

After the war, Trumbull returned to study with West, and then went to Paris, where Thomas Jefferson was minister. It was there that he began The Declaration of Independence, which depicts the presentation of the draft of the Declaration by the Committee of Five to the the rest of the Continental Congress . Later, on commission from Congress, he finished the painting. Many of the figures in the portrait were men he already knew and had painted; he researched the others, and spent time in Independence Hall for the architectural elements. (Those whose likenesses Trumbull could not obtain, he left out).. The painting, along with several others by Trumbull depicting events of the Revolution, were hung in the U.S. Capitol, where they remain to this day. It was also used as the image on the back of the short-lived two dollar bill.

Not to trivialize it, by the painting strikes me as the Revolutionary equivalent of the Sgt. Pepper cover — it’s fun to I.D. all the players. As it happens, I am related to many of them as well, and that will be the subject of another post in, oh, just about a month.

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