Glorious Lessons: John Trumbull, Painter of the American Revolution, by Richard Brookhiser (Yale, 276 pp., $30)

In 1853, British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray toured the U.S. Capitol with Senator Charles Sumner. Thackeray, who illustrated his own novels with sketches, was impressed by the Rotunda and its four wall-size paintings of scenes of the American Revolution: The Declaration of Independence, The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, and The Resignation of General Washington. All were done by John Trumbull, who had died ten years earlier. “Trumbull is your painter,” Thackeray told Sumner. “Never neglect Trumbull.”

It’s a telling verdict from an Englishman, an objective endorsement from the enemy, or late enemy. Thackeray seemed to grasp the scope of Trumbull’s achievement. Others depicted single events or did portraits of leading figures—Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, for example—and a non-American, Emanuel Leutze, gave us Washington Crossing the Delaware, but only Trumbull created a suite portraying the Revolution as an unfolding narrative. Thackeray didn’t see the whole of it, which included four additional scenes: The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, and The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton. These eight paintings, all done in the artist’s preferred smaller size of two by three feet, plus a life-size standing portrait of Washington, complete the Trumbull series. It can be seen in full not in the Capitol but at Yale University, where it has resided for nearly 200 years.

In the mid-1970s, Richard Brookhiser, then a Yale undergraduate, came upon the Trumbull paintings. The story they told seized his imagination, seeming to instruct him: “This is important; pay attention. These men and women are dead, but they live here. You do not know them (you do not know them yet) but they had you in mind.” This directive could describe Brookhiser’s own mission. He has devoted much of his book-writing career to compact, eloquent lives of the American Founders, preferring, like Trumbull, the compressed frame to the vast canvas. His lean biographies, defined by insight, aim to draw readers’ eyes to the most important parts of the picture and answer a perennial question: Why should we care? His first book of this kind, 1996’s Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, was a “moral biography” that examined Washington’s life and career through a set of principles he lived by. Founding Father opens in Yale’s Trumbull gallery, where Washington dominates the wall. Twenty-eight years later, Brookhiser’s new book, Glorious Lessons: John Trumbull, Painter of the American Revolution, begins there, too.

Trumbull marks a departure from the author’s previous biographical subjects, all of whom could make some claim to being present at the creation. Though he “would not be one of the great actors,” as Brookhiser acknowledges, he would be “the preserver of them all.” He often stands at the periphery of events, an ideal vantage point for an artist. Hailing from a prominent, well-connected family—his father was Connecticut’s last colonial and first republican governor—Trumbull, born in 1756, served briefly in the Continental Army before quitting in a dispute over his commission. He witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill from afar, observed up-close the sickness and suffering after the Battle of Quebec, and dodged bullets in Newport at the Battle of Rhode Island. He knew the major players, including Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson, with whom he stayed in Paris in the 1780s, developing a close friendship and serving as a go-between for Jefferson and Maria Cosway, the married woman who stole the widowed Virginian’s heart. He later toiled as a diplomat for President Adams amid high tension between the young nation and the warring empires of Britain and France.

Glorious Lessons tells the story of a difficult man and a daunting task. Before he was 30, Trumbull had pledged himself to his life’s project: to set the scenes of the American Revolution in paint so that others could learn “such glorious lessons of their rights, and of the spirit with which they should assert and support them.” Described more than once as “touchy,” the thin-skinned Trumbull is not the most likable character in the Brookhiser pantheon, and his career does not follow a linear path. His creative efforts are sidelined by politics, by family tumult, by the need to earn money, by trouble (he is imprisoned in Britain as a suspected spy), by discouragement, and by age. Yet, Brookhiser’s engaging narrative keeps us in pursuit of the artist’s elusive destiny, and he imbues Trumbull’s life with a Miltonian aspect of deferral, a nagging anxiety that this prideful man might not complete the job he is meant to do before time runs out on him.

He finished the first two paintings of the series—Bunker’s Hill and Quebec—in the mid-1780s. Soon after, he began the third, The Declaration of Independence, suggested by Jefferson himself. In 1792, Trumbull got then-President Washington to pose for the life-size standing portrait, recreating a crucial moment in the Revolutionary War— the brief, harrowing interval between the battles of Trenton and Princeton.

Years of interruptions then ensued. It was only with the end of the War of 1812, and the reconstruction of the Capitol, which the British had destroyed along with the White House in 1814, that the occasion presented itself for Trumbull to start again. It had been 30 years since he had first conceived of the project. He was now 60.

Even the Rotunda opportunity would not deliver consummation. Trumbull would hang only four of the eight paintings there, in their giant sizes—12 by 18 feet, all regarded as artistically inferior to the smaller versions. He labored on the series well into his seventies, concluding only after Yale agreed to pay him an annual annuity in exchange for his bequest of the entire collection. The eight historical paintings and the standing Washington portrait were placed together at last in 1832, when Trumbull was 76. “These are my children,” he said, looking at the finished wall.

Brookhiser discusses the paintings in two full chapters near the end of the narrative, after Trumbull has seen his efforts come to fruition at Yale but before the book’s conclusion. It feels like an appendix inserted prematurely, but the choice seems unavoidable: Trumbull’s career is a zig-zag trail that presents structural challenges for a biographer. Even close readers of Glorious Lessons would struggle to pass a quiz on the chronologies of paintings done over nearly half a century (in different versions) and the details of their twin patrimonies in the Rotunda and at Yale. Imagine a Washington biography in which the general spends decades leading engagements in a never quite concluded war.

Brookhiser’s marvelous extended analyses of the paintings, accessible and unerringly clear, will help readers look at them with fresh eyes. He is not shy in spotting the deficiencies, the lapses of painterly proportion or characterization. (Trumbull was never a critics’ darling.) The Declaration, the most iconic image, has stilted aspects, especially its long, static row of heads, though its centerpiece, Jefferson turning over the document to the Congress, retains the ability to inspire. Brookhiser calls our attention to Jefferson’s right arm, handing the paper to John Hancock: it “modifies a pose from Roman sculpture, adlocutio, in which an emperor, arm extended, addresses his troops.” The gesture is adapted to a republican context.

The adlocutio recurs throughout the series. Washington performs it in two paintings, The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton and The Resignation. In Trenton, Washington is on horseback and has come upon the mortally wounded Hessian leader, Johann Rall. Here the adlocutio is “a gesture not of imperial address, but of humane compassion,” Brookhiser observes. Washington did, in fact, show mercy to Rall, letting him return to the house that had been his headquarters, where he died. “For all the carnage,” Brookhiser notes, “the enemy cannot simply be hated.”

The most accomplished painting is the first, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, which Brookhiser considers “one of the best battle paintings of the last two hundred and fifty years.” Like Quebec, which Trumbull painted next, Bunker’s Hill dramatizes a British victory, though won at terrible cost. Its feeling of motion, its vividly rendered faces and actions, and its palpable sense of pathos set it apart. When she saw it, Abigail Adams wrote, “my whole frame contracted, my blood shivered, and I felt a faintness at my heart.”

The final painting, The Resignation of General Washington, offers another adlocutio. Washington turns in his military commission to the Congress at Annapolis, a deed that embodies the republican ideal of government. The commission, Brookhiser points out, belongs to Congress, not Washington. Physically a mere piece of paper, like the Declaration, it signifies an agreed-upon task—win the war—which Washington has now done. “Jefferson’s gesture says, This is ours. Washington’s, This is yours.

“Let those who think it is an easy thing to paint a picture,” Trumbull said as an old man, “go to that wall and make it tell a story.” Brookhiser reflects on how this impetus faded for painters with the advent of photography, then motion pictures, and other subsequent modern technologies. In our time, images have become almost as cheap as talk, and painters have long since moved on to more subjective visions. When they do attempt portraiture, the results run the gamut from subversive to strange.

These are obstacles enough to appreciating Trumbull’s art. The most formidable, though, is not aesthetic but political: the defilement of American memory beneath the march of a rejectionist history of the nation and its principles. “How many Americans today sympathize with the story Trumbull tells?” Brookhiser asks. He thinks the artist lucky not to have been a sculptor, given the fates of stone monuments in America’s demonic summer of 2020 (though vandals have not spared paintings elsewhere). The question echoes concerns voiced in his 2019 book, Give Me Liberty, where he called this “the most confused historical moment I have lived in,” lamenting how “America’s national essence is being ignored, trampled, or distorted.” It’s a glimpse of the quiet passion animating his work, which has yielded a canon of moral biographies that help Americans understand the Founders by trying first to see them—not so remote from us as they appear, and struggling, as we do, to make choices in a world full of bad ones.

Trumbull is a timely addition to Brookhiser’s gallery of portraits. Who more fitting to profile, in this age of screens, than the man whose images have “flashed like an ad on the nation’s retina”? Brookhiser calls him “the bard, in pictures not words, of American self-rule,” adding: “Those who enjoy self-rule as a matter of course forget how novel and fragile the concept was and is.” This is important. Pay attention.

Photo by Pierce Archive LLC/Buyenlarge via Getty Images


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