John Trumbull
John Trumbull; drawing by David Levine

The painting executed by col. Trumbull, representing the Congress at the declaration of independence, will, I fear, have a tendency to obscure the history of the event which it is designed to commemorate.

—Samuel Wells, 1819

Richard Steele, in the first year of the eighteenth century, said the only way to judge heroes was from “the manner of their dying”:

For in those last minutes, the soul and body both collect all their forces, either bravely to oppose the enemy, or gracefully receive the conqueror, Death. [The Christian Hero]

Even painters who could not have read that text seem to have marched to its order. Guérin’s picture of Cato tearing out his own entrails looks almost like an illustration for Steele’s passage on Cato. That was one of the pictures to be seen at the Metropolitan Museum’s great exhibit of French paintings last summer, which seemed at times to be a collection of advertisements for Death (see pp. 51, 54, 69, 78, 80, 82, 83, 88, 90, 91, 93, 110, 111, 144, 189, 200, 234, 256 of the valuable catalogue). The salons committed, annually, a slaughter of the eminents—Brutus, Socrates, Lucretia. Yet all the dying was decorous. Classical figures did not wait for midnight, like romantics; they could cease upon the midday with no pain—in the calm impiety of a mimicked “Pietà.” Life was all a matter of arranging one’s epitaph.

When Benjamin West launched American painting (typically, abroad) with his Death of Wolfe, he stole a march on Europe, by “outdying” it. This was, in the realm of art, the first American Revolution—one supported by King George. The commonplace of art historians is that West first shocked English critics, and then won them over, by painting a heroic scene in modern (rather than classical) costume. Certainly there are contemporary quotations to support that view. Nonetheless it is an odd one, since other paintings had shown heroes in contemporary military dress—including three earlier ones of this very scene. And military dress is, after all, highly ceremonial. Even when Copley repeated the American triumph, with his Death of the Earl of Chatham, he put the Lords in their ceremonial dress, not worn on the day Chatham addressed them.

Only when John Trumbull began his Declaration of Independence, in 1787, did the real bourgeoisification of heroism take place. These were men in everyday clothes—the five leading figures even lack wigs or powder for their hair. This is the real point of John Randolph’s famous gibe that Trumbull’s Declaration is a “shin piece.” Most commentators think that refers to the number of shins displayed, and Irma Jaffe, in John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution, therefore calls the comment unjust: most of the forty-seven figures have their legs hidden. But Randolph was a crusty survivor of the eighteenth century, and he must have been mocking the gaiters of John Adams, whose calves twinkle with a self-satisfaction to equal Mr. Pickwick’s. The classical leg only shocked when it was clothed. Merchants could have domestic portraits painted in gaiters; but put Herakles in them, and you have bound him indeed.

There was already a hint of such prejudice in the “scandal” of West’s Death of Wolfe; but the talk about that concealed more important aspects of the picture (which visited several places in America this year—including the small but excellent show at the Walters Gallery, commemorated in John Boles’s Maryland Heritage).

The most intriguing figure in West’s picture is the mourning Indian whose classical torso is scored by savage ritual. The thing that took Europe’s imagination in the picture was less the modern dress than the primitive undress. This reaction could not be very openly formulated, since many viewers felt not only that a noble Chingachgook had been created ahead of time, but that a Chingachgook had himself been the creator. West was seen as a primitive Praxiteles found somewhere amid the pine trees, painting classical forms because those were revealed, at last, as the natural forms. The savage scoring on a copper Apollo’s body anticipated David’s eerie way of painting an antique statue and making blood almost visibly pulse in its veins. (Trumbull, as was often the case, imitated West, but with timidity, when he put a black slave in his Bunker Hill. A noble savage mourning an ally, while the fate of his ancestral continent hung in the balance, was one thing. Peter Salem cowering behind Lieutenant Grosvenor was another matter entirely.)

Classical primitivism was the real message of West’s painting; but it was used to make an even greater point, one that became the leading trademark of early American historical painting. General Wolfe is shown dying at the moment of his victory. Steele had said men’s characters could only be gauged by their manner of dying. West wanted to apply that same test to a whole society. The only way to win was, thus, to lose. A series of paintings would paradoxically celebrate death’s victory over the victors—the only thing that could prove them worthy of winning. Since life imitates art, the aesthetic was being prepared that would demand Nelson’s immolation.


Trumbull painted only two masterpieces, both in his student days, while Copley was paying his dues to the West aesthetic with his Death of the Earl of Chatham and the Death of Major Peirson. Luckily for Trumbull, the Americans lost most of their early battles; so he could prove they were going to win by painting the deaths of General Warren at Bunker Hill and of General Montgomery at Quebec. (He also began The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton—but this suffered from his documentary-commercial impulse: he delayed it to perfect it. After his student days he constantly tried to expand his art in ways that shrank it.) All the elements West had assembled are present in Trumbull’s Bunker’s Hill, the smoke of whose guns Trumbull had seen from a distance. But Trumbull is less classical and composed than West—his figures have greater dash and realism. If West painted like a modern Plutarch, Trumbull was Plutarch as war correspondent: three men struggle with the bayonet poised just above General Warren’s breast. The Death of Montgomery goes even farther in a gory activism that suggests Goya. A ghostly shred of flag is impaled on a tree above Montgomery.

Americans, regularly losing under General Washington, had their doubts about the celebration of such defeats, so the first pictures of Trumbull’s American series—all three of them Deaths of Americans—were not included in the final public series for the Capitol rotunda. There he had to abandon Dying Americans and concentrate on Surrendering British Leaders. But by that time he had stumbled on what should have been his greatest theme: the surrendering by Washington of his military commission. Here was the symbolic death that in no way marred one’s victory. Here was bourgeois nobility raised higher than any aristocrat’s. The lone commander stands before the central pilaster that supports the whole scene—yet he stands there to give up his power. The very year of Washington’s resignation, Trumbull painted a classical Cincinnatus with the features of the man Trumbull had briefly served under. In the rotunda, he would create Cincinnatus in modern dress, the ideal fulfillment of West’s program. But by then practically no one would notice what he was up to.

The importance of Washington’s symbolic death was anticipated in the companion piece that hangs with it in the rotunda, The Declaration of Independence. Most Americans are confused about what was done and when in the 1776 debates on independence; and Trumbull’s picture just confuses us more. Even Professor Jaffe in John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist…, slips into the easy mistake of describing the scene as focused on “the document those men laid on the desk of John Hancock on 4 July, 1776.” The myths of the Fourth have been often exposed. Independence was not voted then, nor the Declaration signed. When Trumbull had difficulty justifying his cast of characters, he called it a compromise between those who voted independence and those who signed the document (i.e., between July 2 and August 2). But what Trumbull has shown is a different action entirely—the report of the committee for drafting the declaration, which occurred on June 28.

The solemnity of the moment is clear to the five members of the committee, but not (yet) to the Congress as a whole, which cannot have read a document that is just being submitted to it for the first time. This allows for the composure and serenity of the seated figures, played off against the anxiety of the five standing men in their plain clothes and unpowdered hair, with the signs of war hung on the wall above them (almost like a cartoonist’s cottony “balloon” above a character, showing what is on his mind). Trumbull strove for an effect of noble risk—a kind of symbolic death, to match Washington’s in the Cincinnatus. He almost achieves this in the small picture (owned by Yale) of the Declaration he worked on for decades. In the large work of waxen visages that hangs in the rotunda, the five men stare off at different chunks of space as if they had forgotten why they were there. (Franklin, in fact, looks a bit dotty.)

In both her books, Professor Jaffe traces the antecedents for Trumbull’s Declaration—some of them rather farfetched (like Raphael’s Disputa). But she avoids entirely one of the more obvious models for the central group, West’s 1783 Peace Commissioners, now in the Winterthur Museum. It has often been noticed that West first conceived the idea of celebrating the American Revolution in a series of paintings—a plan he could not carry out because of the king’s patronage. Trumbull not only completed the plan West had conceived; he made himself very familiar with West’s initial picture—the unfinished Commissioners. West had taken the occasion of the Americans’ presence to do careful portraits of them, hoping to complete the work after they left. The five commissioners fill the whole two-thirds of the painting that are finished. Only a small space is left for the two British statesmen, with their backs toward us, to receive the terms.


Three of the commissioners (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and William Temple Franklin) are seated, while two stand (John Jay and Henry Laurens). The figure of Adams, seated at the edge of the table, is closest of the five to the viewer. He wears a brown suit. John Quincy Adams later remembered how West measured the self-satisfied calves in their white stockings, which are just as prominent in this picture as in Trumbull’s. Three years later, when Trumbull began his Declaration, he put Adams in the same clothes, at the corner of the table, closer to us than any of the other four committeemen. And the face is seen in three-quarter position, facing to our right—at a sharper angle than West’s for the miniaturist to shadow it more; but the nose and mouth are practically identical, as one can see from the details on pages 44 and 59 of Andrew Oliver’s Portraits of John and Abigail Adams (Harvard, 1967). A glance through the other portraits contained in that book shows that the similarity goes beyond the fact that both studies are devoted to the same man.

Look again at West’s Commissioners. Franklin, seated, visible only in bust length, wears Quaker black with just a splash of white at his neck; and he looks out almost directly at the viewer. Trumbull shows him in the same clothes, at the same angle, looking almost directly at the viewer. The principal difference is the color of his hair—white in Trumbull, and frayed out as part of the haloing process that fitted miniatures to their prepared slots in the painting. West’s John Jay is the tallest figure, and the one who is speaking for the group. He stands in the orator’s pose, with spread feet, and gestures down at the treaty drafts. Move this figure from the left of Adams to the right, and he is in almost the exact posture of Jefferson (on whose allocutionary pose Professor Jaffe dwells). In Trumbull too, the five main figures carry the document over the center of the picture to the right, where the recipient (John Hancock here) sits in the position West had prepared for the British statesmen.

Smaller hints also point at the impact of this work by his master on Trumbull’s conception of an American document’s celebration: Benjamin Harrison, not nearly as fat as he was in real life, is the most prominent figure among those seated at our left: he leans toward the desk, as if to hear what Jefferson is about to say. In West, Henry Laurens, with a similar oval face, leans over the table as if listening for Jay to speak.

Professor Jaffe does not trace the Declaration to West because she tries throughout to play down West’s influence over Trumbull. It became a common criticism that Trumbull only painted well under the influence (if not with the assistance) of his master. The odd thing is that he did paint best in his early London days, when he painted least like West. But Ms. Jaffe’s emphasis on the Declaration gives the rumor of West’s influence a surprising final justification.

Her small book, in the admirable Viking series devoted to single paintings, is just a condensation of chapters six, seven, and fourteen from her longer book, with brief biographical introduction. That leaves out the best thing in the long book—the thorough account of Trumbull’s life. As the son of one Connecticut governor, and the brother of another, Trumbull moved in interesting company at home and abroad. President Washington posed on horseback for him; Jefferson put him up in Paris; Jay gave him diplomatic duties; Latrobe and Bulfinch consulted him on architecture. He was an interesting man in his own right, this painter with only one good eye. Art and puritanism warred in him; his family both helped and rebuked him; he married a pretty vulgarian and defended her with exemplary absent-mindedness through her boozier parties.

Ms. Jaffe assembles the facts with thoroughness and intelligence—but, alas, without a trace of humor. Trumbull was always a faintly comical figure, in the New England manner of John Adams. Self-important yet self-doubting, he meant to justify his art to puritan relatives by showing he could make a fortune from it. For decades he carried his historical studies around with him; his carriage had a special case built for them. He would paint into his pictures any hero he stumbled across, meanwhile getting him interested in a subscription for the engraving. He worked his way through the Revolution door to door. The Declaration, which became his principal stock in trade, was begun by accident and ended with misgivings. Jefferson, who had an uncanny knack for arranging posthumous victories, suggested the idea to him, and said he should get started while two of the principals were available (John Adams, and Jefferson himself). So he began the long process of filling in this small canvas with forty-eight heads (reduced to forty-seven in the rotunda).

In the process, Trumbull, who thought he was engaged in heroic history painting, dwindled to a miniaturist. An acquaintance of Richard Cosway, whom he despised (he carried notes from Jefferson to Cosway’s wife, Maria), Trumbull finally became something of a Cosway himself. Cosway was a society miniaturist, blending the fashionable and the ephemeral with flattery and social climbing. Trumbull, in his head-hunting endeavors to find heroes and shrink them onto his canvas, ended up with nothing but a miniaturist’s skill when at last he had the chance to accomplish heroic work for the rotunda. (He asked at first to do eight half-life-size pictures, but Congress forced him to life-size, and he could do only four for the money.)

The “Eye of Jefferson” exhibit at the National Gallery this summer included a beautifully lit Trumbull room. This made it possible to compare the small paintings (normally at Yale) with the rotunda versions just a few blocks away. This confirmed, of course, the general judgment of the small pictures’ superiority—though even those are uneven and oddly disconnected. Trumbull’s method of filling in faces at long intervals makes visages light up or dim like bulbs on a marquee. Details spring up from some faces, while others almost dissolve in generality. Live features lie like jewels on a dead background; dim countenances move past vivid scenery. Trumbull’s documentary aim was always at war with the aesthetic need to unify a crowd scene—just as the key to “who’s who” turns the rotunda pictures into a puzzle or guessing game.

The small Declaration was the most finished of the historic series in the “Eye of Jefferson” exhibit. But, even there, the method of leaving pockets to be filled created anomalies. Jefferson has a kind of unintentional halo of paint build-up where his head meets the wall. The details in Andrew Oliver’s Portraits (pages 44 and 59) indicate that Adams was first drawn with a wig, and this was painted away without effacing its shape. Franklin is given frizzy hair, which suggests less Republican simplicity than slovenly age. The pockets for these leading figures seem to have been worked over—perhaps the space left for them was at first too large; hair is frizzed out to fill the seam between the heads and the space they occupy.

The exaggerated depth of the small room we see in the Declaration was intended to give some variation in the heads, where portrait-exactitude forbade much deliberate variation in distinctness. The heads dwindle off until Francis Hopkinson, at Adam’s elbow, is not much bigger than his hand—as if the wall were over by a distant hill. Even the small pictures done all at once, since they were done late, show a falling-off in skill. The Jefferson in The Resignation of Washington is barely recognizable, and resembles the head Trumbull did for the Declaration only by having too-vivid red hair.

West’s heroic example both launched and inhibited American art. Copley, striving for that scale, lost the opalescence and bleaching light of his own American portraits. Trumbull’s early two Deaths pointed in the direction of Delacroix rather than David; but classical aspiration cramped him. Ms. Jaffe does not see the final irony: Trumbull’s late but enduring success with the Declaration went against his own political preferences and his great project’s carefully planned iconography. By then he had broken with Jefferson and had been identified for years with the Federalists, whose position his rotunda series was meant to symbolize. Trumbull’s Declaration ended up with at least fitful life after years of fiddling with it; but it was meant to be just one of the pictures pointing to the climax of his revolutionary series—The Resignation of Washington. Jefferson is prominent in the committee that offers the draft of the Declaration. But Washington stands alone in the final picture. His is all the action, though it is only a yielding. The two British surrenders are followed by an American “surrender,” which is a paradoxical conquest—Washington, like West, outdoes the British by outdying them. The measure of heroism is finally filled up. In the scheme of two military pictures and two civil ones, only Washington appears in both a military and a civil one—first in war and first in peace. When Trumbull died, the only boast on his tombstone was “Friend of Washington.”

It was a grand conception, but Trumbull no longer had the artistry to make it come alive; and if he had, it might not have been recognized. The rotunda Declaration is not more skillful than the Resignation; but it gets all the attention. The country had changed as well as he. His completion of the other four pictures proposed for the rotunda was blocked by Jacksonians who did not like his politics. Trumbull was trying to glorify Washington at just that moment when the great symbol of our Revolution had begun to fade. The joke was on Trumbull: he failed by his success, reversing West’s paradox. For years he kept trying to paint Washington and it came out Jefferson. Yet that is the basis of Trumbull’s fame—and a parable of our history.

This Issue

October 14, 1976