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A revolution 1Declaration of Independence, 1776

Today being the Fourth of July, this writer was reminded of a recent trip to the very fine Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, CT. In addition to a panoply of Old Masters, French Impressionism and Hudson River School, the gallery has the finest collection of works by John Trumbull (1756-1843) depicting the American Revolution from the Battle of Bunker Hill to the surrender at Yorktown. Larger versions of these works painted at a later date hang in the rotunda of the United States Capitol, Washington DC. These works were done well after the fact. In addition to being a brutal war between kin, few period images survived the conflict except for some mass produced prints by Paul Revere. Indeed if one wants to see pre Revolutionary War architecture in the New York area, most of what can be found lies north of the Croton River or out on Long Island, as the areas between British occupied New York City and the forces of Washington et al in Danbury, Fishkill, Newburgh, West Point and Morristown caused the farmlands outside the city to be a no mans land where homes and barns alike were put to the torch. Years after the Revolution when Independence solidified and the economy returned, that allowed Trumbull the time and peace to reconstruct on canvas the defining moments of his young America.

A Revolution 2John Trumbull “Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775”

Listed as a defeat of the Americans by the British forces in the taking of Breed’s Hill in Charleston, outside of Boston, the well dug in Americans under William Prescott and Israel Putnam inflicted terrible casualties on the British forces who assaulted straight up the hill. Eventually the hastily organized militia forces ran out of gun powder and retreated from the field of battle with the foremost American casualty General Warren illustrated here as a fiery William Prescott displays mixed emotions over leaving his friend behind. Despite the subject of this painting, this battle inflicted disproportionate casualties on the British side instilling a note of caution from ever attacking well entrenched American forces. Prior to the battle General Gage asserted he could disperse the rabble easily but an American loyalist in the camp warned “Colonel Prescott will fight you to the gate of hell.”

Nineteen year old John Trumbull watched this event through field glasses from a colonial outpost in Roxbury, MA. Boston then was an island at high tide, connected to the mainland by a thin neck which ran right into Roxbury.

A revolution 3John Trumbull “Signing the Declaration of Independence, July 2, 1776”

Slightly later in time than the noble defeat at Bunker Hill, this image of the signing of the Declaration of Independence likely was the genesis of this series of works commenced when Trumbull met Thomas Jefferson while in France in the mid 1780’s. Obviously staeted ten years after the real moment had passed, this re-creation by the artist was aided by questions he put to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson[1] as to who sat where, when the big vote came down. It should be noted the signing took place on July 2, 1776, with the actual announcement being made public two days later on July 4, 1776. There is some conjecture as to the extent of ongoing negotiations with the British that summer and when that did not work out as hoped, the results of the Continental Congress vote was made public in a Declaration broad sheet form.

A revolution 4John Trumbull, “Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777”

A week after the stunning Battle of Trenton, the wrath and might of the British Army was poised to deliver a counter attack on Washington at Trenton. Washington anticipated Cornwallis' move and slipped out at night on January 2, 1776 to continue his new found strategy of rolling up lightly defended British and Hessian outposts in central New Jersey. Moves like this earned Washington the nickname of the "Old Fox" by his British counterparts. During the battle the British under Mawhood attacked General Mercer believing him to be Washington, when Mercer would not surrender, he was shot. His sacrifice was not in vain as while Mawhood was occupied mopping up the American wing, the American’s under Cadwalader then Washington engaged Mawhood as Washington’s mass gave critical weight to the disorganized movements by Cadwaladers raw troops.

Images of Saratoga and elsewhere are on display but they hang too high up in the Trumbull Gallery to be adequately photographed and reproduced here. Colonel William Prescott does make a second appearance in Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga.

A revlolution 5John Trumbull, “Surrender at Yorktown, October 1781”

Primary to this composition is the presence of General Benjamin Lincoln, a former POW from the Battle of Charleston. Cornwallis declined to attend the surrender and sent his second in command instead. Aware of such slights, Washington directed the British office, General Charles O’Hara to his own second in command, General Lincoln. In all some 8,000 troops were captured. Aside from skirmishes, the war for North American was largely over.

A revolution 6John Trumbull, “Washington Resigning his Commission, December 1783”

A scene depicting the remaining Continental Congress gathered for such purposes in Annapolis, Maryland on December 23, 1783, General Washington petitions for his right to return home.[2] The larger versions of these works hang in Washington DC, though many consider these smaller and earlier works to be of vastly greater quality. This series occupied much of Trumbull's time from 1790 until 1820.

Upon completion Trumbull had enough fame and wealth to be the kindly grandfather figure to American art, a position he relished. This is best exemplified when Trumbull had a chance to influence a certain young artist in the fall of 1825. What prompted this was that Colonel Trumbull noticed three vibrant landscapes in Colman’s picture shop window on lower Broadway in New York City. This event made the New York Evening Post on November 22, 1825. [3]

On casting his eyes upon one of the pictures … he exclaimed, “where did these come from!” and continued gazing, almost incapable of understanding the answer. When informed that what he saw was the work of a young man, untutored and unknown, he immediately purchased the painting for twenty five dollars, the price Mr. Colman had prevailed upon the painter to affix to his work, adding, “Mr. Colman, keep the money due to me, and take the balance. If I could sir, I would add to the balance. What I now purchase for 25 dollars I would not part for 25 guineas. I am delighted, and at the same time mortified. This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I can not do after 50 years of practice.

The young artist was Thomas Cole (1801-1848).

A revolution 7Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven CT

A lecture on historical paintings at Yale including those by Trumbull given by John Walsh, Yale Class of 1961, Director emeritus, Getty Museum: 

First published 4/7/2014

By Alex Boyle

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