John Trumbull and Art as a Reflection of Ideals

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Art is not static, but a living, organic part of society. It can tell a story, whisper a caution, or even demonstrate a worldview. Often, art does all of these things simultaneously. Art is a subjective element, given to the temporal, social, and cultural contexts of its master. Perhaps this is most apparent when art is created during social change. When American artist John Trumbull produced his series of historical paintings on the Revolutionary War in the latter 18th century, each piece of work represented not only the events that took place, but the environment in which they were made and the painter who created them. Trumbull’s series of historic war paintings are far more than a simple recording of events. While also revealing insights into his personal history and ideals, Trumbull’s artistic depictions of the American Revolution capture a desire to portray heroic and martyrdom aspects of the conflict, which has influenced the way the public remembers the war in history.

One of the most iconic of Trumbull’s Revolutionary War paintings is The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17th, 1775. The image captures the death of General Joseph Warren after musket fire mortally struck him in the head. The scene conveys the third attack upon the area by the British, after the previous two skirmishes had been successfully repelled. In the painting, General Warren, an American, is seen falling from the fatal injury while a British officer, John Small, rushes to the general’s side and is even depicted deflecting a bayonet strike by another British officer. Apparently, this scene of friendship was not in the originally planned painting, but was added after Trumbull became aware of the two men’s connection and officer Small’s general kindness towards his “enemies”. It is likely that Trumbull’s original motivation to portray this particular part of the Battle for Bunker’s Hill was because he was present at the conflict. According to Hoock, Trumbull saw the battle take place, albeit from a distance, which certainly fueled a sense of personal inspiration in the artist. Upon this revelation, Trumbull’s ideology of the battle scene changed. He seemed to feel more charged with focusing on the humanity of the event, rather than on the historical accuracy, which was a deviance from his self-proclaimed responsibility. This decision to portray historical events with the utmost accuracy invited both reproach on the painting and the artist’s patriotism.

Among the criticism was a perceived effort by Trumbull to portray British “magnanimity”, how the artist centered on what was deemed an unpatriotic subject among various other valiant American efforts in the battle, and his intentionally inaccurate depiction of events (the scene between the men in the work never actually took place). In direct contrast to the disapprovals, John Trumbull expressly focused on “military martyrdom” in The Death of General Warren with the intention of instilling his ideals of patriotism in viewers. Trumbull, who was raised in a highly political period in history and was surrounded by high born, self-professed patriots, ardently believed in patriotism as a form of responsibility and as a wellspring for masculine nobility. This fact is strongly reflected in the intense but noble drama exhibited in The Death of General Warren, which to this very day stirs the imagination of the Revolutionary War. In an ironic twist, in 1797 when Trumbull was scrutinized by authorities involved in the French Revolution, the same painting that caused a question to his patriotism served to prove his “anti-British” sentiments, squashing the notion of any anti-Revolution sentiments. Even today, the observer of the painting is filled with Trumbull’s patriotic ideal; that the American Revolutionary War was an honorable undertaking, full of honorable men giving their lives for a noble cause.

Trumbull fully acknowledged his sacrifice for historical precision in order to impress upon audiences what he clearly valued more than accuracy: honor. Trumbull recorded in his autobiography his symbolic intentions in the work, “…to show that noble and generous actions, by whomever performed, were the objects to whose celebration I meant to devote myself”. Despite Trumbull’s imminent desire to depict history in accurate terms (he referred to himself as a “graphic historiographer”) his statement reflects both the very nature of art and his artistic inclination to represent far more than the work’s face value. In this case, while the painting certainly captures a key moment in the battle, accurate or not, it expresses an ideal of human compassion and friendship, which inevitably influences how viewers conceptualize the human drama that lay between the various battles of the Revolutionary War. Far from being a black and white, historical account of the battle, the painting does something far more important than simply describe an event. Trumbull inculcates the audience with a sense of the very human complications of war and the costs therein.

Artistically, The Death of General Warren focuses on Warren and Small as the centerpiece, emphasizing Trumbull’s view of their importance in the scene. To further that point, the British and Americans, on the left and right of the canvas, respectively, both move towards the two men, and converge in the center of the painting. This has the effect of drawing attention to the men, and invariably, Small’s humanity, even to the extent of overwhelming the theme of the Revolutionary War. The light of the environment is cast on the central figures. Foreboding browns, yellows, and greys of the surrounding areas only further illuminate the center of the work and the important symbolic imagery. To add to the sanctity of the actions of Warren and Small, Trumbull clothed them both in white, as if to remove all blemishes of the conflict and the war from the two and cast them solely in the light of their friendship and humanity.

Another influential painting of Trumbull’s Revolutionary War series is The Death of General Montgomery at the Battle of Quebec, December 31, 1775. Similar to The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, Trumbull once again expresses a dramatic, tragic event in which a gallant effort by the Americans resulted in defeat by the British. This image was better received than The Death of General Warren, as it was regarded as a more accurate representation of the circumstances that claimed the life of General Richard Montgomery. Soon after the battle, some “patriot poems, sermons, play and pictures” emerged which claimed that the general was killed by Native Americans and his body was left cruelly on display by a British commander. In the Death of General Montgomery, Trumbull expressed his desire for the viewer to experience the deep shock of the battle’s fate, “…a retreat was immediately begun. Grief and surprise mark the countenance of the various characters”. As with The Death of General Warren, the painting echoes its duality as a platform for Trumbull’s ideal of patriotism and honor as well as broader social concepts about the human condition.

The audience is encouraged to see the events in Trumbull’s two tragic paintings as heroic, noble, and worthy of admiration, while also serving as a visceral reminder of how quickly life can change and how easily even a prominent life may be extinguished. Trumbull stated in regards to both The Death of General Warren and The Death of General Montgomery, “…in painting them, I should be paying a just tribute to the gratitude of the memory of eminent men, who had given their lives for their country”. If either of these two works were simply historical, having given no attention to how the paintings would communicate to audiences (even over time), the careful attention to the detail of the human drama as well as the highlighting of the nobility of the character’s actions, would have been pointless. All of these aspects within the work affect how viewers may perceive the both the Revolutionary War, as well as the very nature of human existence.

There are many technical and artistic aspects to The Death of General Montgomery that underscore its use as a provocation of emotion and to impress heroism on the audience. In the scene, the Americans are shown on the right-hand side of the work, literally repelled backwards from the attacking British. Smoke from the fatal cannon blast emanates from the left in a diagonal line towards and above the surprised Americans, and most importantly, the general, who is thrown back by the fatal shot into the arms of his comrades. The scene is heightened by the careful presence of the snow and wind to indicate the blizzard in which the group marched through to arrive at their fateful undoing. Trumbull was intent on portraying the ill-fated battle and the terrible weather that made the valiant attempt on the part of General Montgomery both brave and heartbreaking.

A third painting, The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776, is a departure from the portrayal of defeat of the Americans and a triumphant embracing of American successes in the war. This particular choice of subject material once again demonstrated Trumbull’s penchant for portraying heroic, noble characters in the war. This time, his noble character was no less that General George Washington. In the Battle of Trenton in 1776, the General crossed the Delaware River and Washington led a decisive victory over the Hessians (contracted by the British) who were stationed in Trenton. This battle acted as a vital morale boost for the Americans, who had been suffering losses. Perhaps even more importantly, and surely why Trumbull chose this battle for his war series, is the way General Washington acted towards his fallen enemies. Washington not only ordered his men to treat the prisoners and injured with humanity and respect, he also enabled the fallen commander, Colonel Rall, to die with dignity. This was indicated by Rall’s assistant, who wrote about his eventual death, “…satisfied that it was not necessary for him to outlive his honor”. Once again, honor as an ideal on the battlefield is provided for the viewer to respect and hopefully, emulate.

As with The Battle of General Warren, Trumbull was emphasizing and celebrating the vital component of integrity in the American Revolution by demonstrating the willingness of heroes to treat fallen enemies with respect. In much the same way that The Death of General Warren portrays the dying British officer in a noble, yet tragic drama with an American soldier, Trumbull frequently draws on the classical, heroic tradition in art and literature to represent honor through the magnanimous treatment of enemies. With art as a symbolic communicator and even an element of propaganda, Trumbull focused The Capture of the Hessians in a way to promote what he believed to be the power and graciousness of the American spirit. This kind of visual statement worked to justify the American cause of separation from the British, as well as proclaim the virtue of patriotism as a deeply honorable and desirable characteristic. Trumbull no doubt viewed the creation of his Revolutionary War paintings as being both a service to his country as well as to inspire audiences, both contemporary and in the future.

The technical elements of The Capture of the Hessians are similar to The Death of General Warren in that the painting rests the focus of the audience on the center, which portrays General Washington requesting that his aides attend to the mortally wounded Colonel Rall. The color and brushwork is, like the previous paintings, alive with the romantic style of the classics and teeming with the knowledge of the battlefield he possessed. Amidst the heavily-contrasted background, Washington sits on his horse, bookended by the victorious American troops. The light depicted in the work is most clearly white and shining beside the kindly general’s face. Again, Trumbull is using white, as with The Death of General Warren, to emphasize the pure value of benevolence, even among the bodies that littered the landscape and the cannons that were ever-present in the background.

Trumbull was a patriot and also a painter, which made him naturally inclined to creating pieces that both reflected the important political events of the day, as well as to influence the viewer through emotional and symbolic communication. With the Death of General Warren at the Battle for Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775, Trumbull decidedly throws aside his desire for historical accuracy in favor of a message about humanity and compassion amidst the torrents of a war that divides a people. In a return to historical precision, Trumbull’s The Death of General Montgomery at the Battle of Quebec, December 31, 1775, uses the ill-fated battle and general as a platform in which to communicate his strong ideals of patriotism and heroism in the form of sacrifice for a noble cause. Finally, in The Capture of the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton, December 26, 1776, Trumbull chose a decisive, pivotal American victory as a subject, highlighting not only the triumph, but the kindness of General George Washington to his enemies. Each of the three paintings visually recorded important events in the American Revolutionary War, but also existed, and still exists, as a message for the virtue of patriotism, the value of magnanimity, and the glory of a martyr’s death on the altar of country. Each of these lessons in Trumbull’s paintings works to influence and color the way the contemporary audience looks back and conceptualizes the Revolutionary War. According to Trumbull’s depicted ideals, the war was a noble, honorable fight fraught with setbacks, but ultimately resulted in glorious triumph, and is exactly what he wanted his audience to understand and emulate.

Works Cited

Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Hoock, Holger. "Transatlantic Journeys." Empires of The Imagination: Politics, War and The Arts in The British World, 1750-1850. London: Profile Books, 2010. 109-116.

Jaffe, Irma. "Contemporary Words and Pictures: Drawings (1782-1810) by John Trumbull." Early American Literature 11.1 (1976): 31-51.

Prown, Jules David. "John Trumbull as History Painter." Art as Evidence: Writings on Art and Material Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001. 159-187.

Trumbull, John. Autobiography, reminiscences and letters of John Trumbull, from 1756 to 1841. New York London: Wiley and Putnam, 1841.

Weir, John F. John Trumbull A Brief Sketch of His Life, To Which Is Added A Catalogue of His Works .... New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1901.