Born into a distinguished Connecticut family, John Trumbull was a graduate of Harvard who served the young nation as an officer in the Continental Army and later as a diplomat. He was also one of America’s most versatile and accomplished artists. A pupil in London of the influential expatriate artist Benjamin West, Trumbull explored many subjects during his long career. In addition to his portraits and landscapes, he memorialized battle scenes from the Revolutionary War, eventually producing four historical paintings for the United States Capitol Rotunda. Trumbull’s long support of the American Academy of Fine Arts, serving as president from 1816 to 1835, testified to his commitment to developing the nation’s arts.
After being dismissed from a London post with the Jay Treaty commission in 1804, John Trumbull returned to the United States to resume his career as a painter. He established a studio in New York City, where he devoted himself to portraiture; a widespread feeling of national discord discouraged him from immediately pursuing his ambitious plans for monumental history paintings. Trumbull enjoyed great success as a portraitist during his four-year residence in New York, counting among his patrons the municipal government as well as the city’s most prominent Federalist families. Economic conditions, specifically a trade embargo against Britain, “threatened the entire destruction of the prosperity of those friends from whom I derived my subsistence,” Trumbull observed. His portrait business waning, he returned in 1808 to London’s more lucrative and encouraging environment, where he remained until 1816.
National Museum of American Art (CD-ROM) (New York and Washington D.C.: MacMillan Digital in cooperation with the National Museum of American Art, 1996)
John Trumbull was the son of Jonathan Trumbull, governor of Connecticut from 1769 until 1784. John entered Harvard University at the age of fifteen and served in the military during the Revolutionary War. While a student, Trumbull visited the studio of John Singleton Copley and was inspired to become a painter. In 1780 he traveled as a civilian to England, where he studied with Benjamin West. While in London, Trumbull spoke openly about his support of the American Revolution, leading the British government to jail him for treason. West came to the aid of his student, convincing the government to release him after seven months in jail. New information about the life of John Trumbull surfaced in 1953 with the publication of the artist’s autobiography. The book relates that in 1792, Trumbull fathered an illegitimate son with a servant girl while living at his brother’s house in London.