Jonathan Trumbull (1710-1785), RIP: Father of the artist who painted “the class photo.”


Jonathan Trumbull, 1710-1785

Jonathan Trumbull, 1710-1785

    Jonathan Trumbull, first governor of the state of Connecticut and Patriot leader, died on this day in 1785. The only royal governor to embrace the Patriot cause, he continued to serve as state governor after independence was declared. His daughter Mary was wife of William Williams, one of the Connecticut signers of the Declaration of Independence. However, Gov. Trumbull’s greatest contribution to the history of the Declaration was allowing a son to pursue a life as a painter: John Trumbull (1756-1843), famous for his heroic portrayal of the document’s introduction to the world.

            The younger Trumbull was a soldier during the Revolution and even served as an aide to Gen. George Washington. As an artist, he was trained by Benjamin West, one of the few American painters of the age who possessed a European reputation. Encouraged and admired by none other than Thomas Jefferson,

John Trumbull, 1756-1843, American artist

John Trumbull, 1756-1843, American artist

Trumbull in the 1780s began the paintings and engravings of significant historical events in United States history that he worked on sporadically for the remainder of his life.  His letters and autobiography make fascinating reading despite their sometime bitter tone when Trumbull bewailed the new nation’s lack of interest in supporting the arts.

            Though considered historically inaccurate in its portrayal, the John Trumbull portrait is by far the most iconic. (Even I yielded to the power of this specific image. A detail from the portrait is the banner of this blog.) The painting features the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin) standing in front of John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress. The painting also includes portraits of 42 of the 56 signers, some of whom were not even present when the Declaration was presented to the Continental Congress. However, some of the likenesses in the painting are the only portraits available of certain American founders. The huge 12-by-18-foot canvas is one of four Trumbull works hanging in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda that depict important historical events from the American Revolution.  In a smaller form as an engraving the painting appears on the back of the $2 bill.

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

            Some historians have jokingly called this portrait “the class photo” of the 2nd Continental Congress because of its high-toned neo-Classical manner and the artist’s effort to include in the painting nearly everyone who was anyone in the Patriot cause. Still, it is a beautiful work that can be admired simply as an image memorializing a transcendent moment in U.S. history. We should be grateful that the elder Trumbull did not succumb to his feelings about young John’s career choice. As one biographer wrote, “His father wanted him to pursue either the ministry or law, feeling that the manual crafts were beneath the family dignity.” Today, we remember the Trumbull family mostly for the accomplishments of its most gifted son, born of a dignified father who believed in the future of the United States even he if had qualms about art as a career for his child.



Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence

3 responses to “Jonathan Trumbull (1710-1785), RIP: Father of the artist who painted “the class photo.”

  1. James C. Trumbull III

    As a relative of this great patriot, I appreciate your comments on several levels: First, with regard to your recognition of this recorder of American history, the great patriot who served his country as aide de camp to General Washington, the cartographer and spy who risked his life in defense of this developing nation against British occupation-he was a more important figure in our history than most people are aware of or acknowledge. And for me, as a father with a son in college, who is in the process of discovering who and what he wishes to become, I was pleased to read your observation and comment regarding the elder Trumbull allowing his son to choose his own destiny. That surely gave room for the son to reach his potential-a message I will take to heart.

  2. paulrhuard

    Mr. Trumbull:
    Thank you for your warm compliments. Should you have an interest in colonial America, the American Revolution, or the political/cultural history of the American Revolution feel free to subscribe to this blog. I post new, original content about once every week.
    I am gratified that I was able capture some of the importance of your ancestor, a great and significant American patriot and artist.
    Please accept my best wishes.

  3. Pingback: Struggling for Independence: Some Reflections on a Coincidence « The Shout Heard 'Round The World: Exploring the Meaning and the Message of the Declaration of Independence

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