“John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter” brings together for the first time John Trumbull’s best-known paintings, as well as lesser-known examples of his work. The 170 objects—drawn from public and private collections—demonstrate that Trumbull’s artistic interests ranged wide: besides the history themes and portraits, he painted landscapes, religious, literary, and allegorical subjects, and produced fine Neoclassical figure drawings and architectural studies.
Trumbull’s life spanned an era of tremendous change in America, both politically and in the arts. His Autobiography, the first written by an American artist, together with his extensive correspondence, reveal an observant, thoughtful man who held strong views on art, culture, society, and politics. He was, at various times, soldier, diplomat, entrepreneur, perhaps even a spy, but from the beginning, and throughout his life, he saw himself as an artist. In a sense, his fame as the chief visual recorder of the great events of the American Revolution has obscured his artistic concerns. The primary aim in choosing the objects for the exhibition, and in organizing the catalogue, has been to illuminate those concerns.
The catalogue begins with a short life of the artist, recounted whenever possible in his own words and those of his contemporaries. In the first essay, Jules D. Prown discusses Trumbull as a history painter—his sources in Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley and his effort to create moral rather than nationalistic scenes. Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque addresses Trumbull’s conflicting attitudes toward portrait painting. Patricia Burnham considers Trumbull’s religious subjects in relation to the Renaissance and Baroque models on which they are based, and Trumbull’s own religious attitudes. Bryan Wolf analyzes Trumbull’s landscapes, focusing on the moment when the artist surpassed the conventions of the picturesque to develop a new mode of landscape composition similar in structure to the work of later Romantic painters. Martin Price’s discussion of Trumbull’s literary themes—a small but important group of paintings and drawings—relates them to contemporaneous literature. Trumbull considered the commission to decorate the Capitol Rotunda the crowning achievement of his career and, in his Autobiography, implies it was a relatively easy prize to win. But, as Egon Verheyen shows, Trumbull conducted an intense campaign to influence Congress and the architects. Each author has studied Trumbull according to his or her own sphere of interest. The varying interpretations that result are indicative of the richness of Trumbull’s art. The essays are followed by chronologically arranged entries for the exhibited objects in each category. Although Trumbull’s works can be separated out by subject matter, they are in fact often interrelated. Thus the entries in each thematic section occasionally make references to or recapitulate material in other sections.
In the fall of 1979, during the preliminary stage of planning for the exhibition, Professor Prown conducted a graduate seminar on Trumbull at Yale, in the course of which basic research was begun. Subsequently, the work was continued by members of the American Arts office of the Yale University Art Gallery, graduate students, research assistants, and interns. Elizabeth Pratt Fox, Lisa Jandorf, and Virginia Wagner, National Museum Act Interns in 1978, 1979, and 1980, respectively, helped to gather material. Jennifer Ackerman provided research assistance for Trumbull’s biography. The history entries (Cats. 432) were prepared by David Barquist, National Museum Act Intern, 1981–82, and Esther Thyssen, Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow, Fall 1980 and Rose Herrick Jackson Fellow, Spring 1982. David Steinberg, Curatorial Assistant, and David Barquist worked on the miniatures (Cats. 46100). Barquist also prepared the entries for Cats. 3, 32, 43, 45, 113, 124, 157; Sarah Cohen, National Museum Act Fellow, 1981–82, for Cats. 3336, 38, 11415, 11820, 122, 156, 158; David Steinberg, Cats. 1, 2, 40, 44, 123, 153; Esther Thyssen, Cats. 13946; Rebecca Zurier, Rose Herrick Jackson Fellow, Spring 1981 and Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow, Spring 1982, Cats. 37, 11617, 14750, 165–71. Some catalogue entries were generously contributed by Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque (Cats. 1013, 39, 41, 42, 121), Patricia Burnham (Cats. 133, 13537, 159), and Egon Verheyen (Cats. 16164).
Trumbull’s Autobiography of 1841 and the various manuscript collections of Trumbull family papers formed the foundation of our research. Of crucial importance in locating works of art was Theodore Sizer’s The Works of Colonel John Trumbull (1950, revised edition, 1967). This checklist, and his articles on the artist, together with the files he gathered in their preparation, represent a lifetime of scholarship, and we are indebted to Professor Sizer’s achievement. We also relied on Irma Jaffe’s definitive biography, John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution (1975). In addition, Professor Jaffe graciously responded to our many queries.
In the course of borrowing objects for the show and preparing the manuscript for this catalogue, many colleagues offered important suggestions and help: Linda Ayres, Mary Black, John Brealey, John Caldwell, Susan Casteras, Clement E. Conger, Thomas Dunnings, Harold F. Pfister, John K. Howat, Patricia E. Kane, Mary Alice Kennedy, Joseph LoSchiavo, Anne-Imelda Radice, Richard Saunders, Wendy J. Shadwell, Natalie Spassky, Allen Staley, Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Diana Strazdes, Larry E. Sullivan, and Gerald W. R. Ward. I am especially indebted to Sheila Schwartz for her scrupulous editing of the manuscript, and her expert and invaluable advice throughout. Greer Allen is responsible for the beautiful design of this book, and his enthusiastic response to the project made our work together a pleasure. For their generous assistance, I am indebted to Judith A. Schiff and the staff at Manuscripts and Archives, the staff of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and Patrick Noon, Angela Bailey and the staff at the Yale Center for British Art. Grateful thanks are given to members of the Art Gallery staff. Caroline Rollins, coordinator of Membership, Sales, and Publications, helped us track down a number of Trumbull pictures. William Cuffe, Rights and Reproductions, coordinated photography. Joseph Szaszfai made numerous superb photographs, many of them at short notice. Administrative matters were ably handled by Diane Hoose, Business Manager, and by Olise Mandat and Lorraine McKerral, past and present secretaries. C. Allen Waddle impeccably typed most of the numerous drafts of the manuscript, and Sally Brogden helped prepare the index. Richard Porterfield, Bursary Assistant, provided much needed help at every stage of the project. I wish to extend particular thanks to Rosalie Reed, Registrar, and Robert Soule, Superintendent, and their staffs for their assistance, and to Richard S. Field, Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, and his assistant Lucia Iannone, who prepared the Trumbull drawings for exhibition. Special acknowledgment and appreciation go to David Steinberg and David Barquist, who have been invaluable colleagues in coordinating the countless tasks associated with the catalogue and the exhibition. The cleaning and restoration of a number of the Yale pictures was superbly accomplished by Wynne Beebe, Diane Dwyer, Mark Leonard, and Dorothy Mahon. Sarah Buie’s sensitive exhibition design presented John Trumbull at his best. And, finally, I thank Jack Ross Cooper for his inexhaustible patience and unstinting encouragement.
Helen A. Cooper