Hailed as the foremost painter of the American Revolution, John Trumbull (1756-1843) is best remembered for the four iconic images that grace the walls of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. These paintings depict pivotal events in our nation’s early history: The Signing of the Declaration of Independence, The Surrender of General Burgoyne, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and General Washington Resigning his Commission.
Trumbull, born in Connecticut in 1756 and educated at Harvard, spent a brief period in the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington during the first year of the war. After a dispute over the date of his officer’s commission, Trumbull resigned from the army. Soon after, an opportunity arrived for him to travel to England to study art under the painter Benjamin West.
A collection of John Trumbull’s papers at the New-York Historical Society provides a glimpse into his life as as an artist and diplomat between the years of 1775 to 1842. The John Trumbull papers provide researchers with a behind-the-scenes look at Trumbull’s development as an artist, including his study of the of technical skills required. A frequent traveler, Trumbull enjoyed learning about the creation of paints and their various histories from around the world. A number of experiments and recipes are recorded in the volume Inventories and Paint Recipes, including different ways to create the most vibrant, deepest, and well-preserved colors.
It was while abroad that Trumbull conceived his greatest project–a series of paintings that would tell the story of the American Revolution. “To assist in preserving the memory of the illustrious events which have marked this period of our country’s glory, as well as the men who have been the most important actors in them, is the object of this undertaking,” he wrote on April 2, 1790. To finance his artwork, Trumbull sold subscriptions for engravings made from his paintings. His subscribers included President Washington, Vice President Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Rufus King, and New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. Two volumes within the John Trumbull papers, entitled Subscriptions for Bunker Hill and Quebec, provide a full list of the citizens and government officials who subscribed to these works.
In 1817 Congress passed a resolution allowing President Madison to commission four paintings by Trumbull to be placed in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Before their installation, Trumbull’s paintings were exhibited in different venues around the country. In 1824, The Resignation of George Washington made its way to New York for public viewing, earning Trumbull a profit of £406 (roughly $55,000 in 2019 dollars) before being placed permanently in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Today Trumbull’s paintings continue to delight millions of visitors to the U.S. Capitol, his great project having crystallized iconic imagery of American history.
This post is by Erin Weinman, Manuscript Reference Librarian.