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,
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.
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.