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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

John Trumbull

John Trumbull Self-portrait, 1777
One of the most persistent comments any artist hears in exhibiting his or her work before the public is, "I'd never have the patience to do anything like that." It's a fair comment and a tribute to their perseverance that the artist should welcome. In fact, all too often, many would-be artists fail to succeed simply because they lack the patience to learn their craft and produce their art. I'm not sure, but I have an instinctive feeling that patience may be a factor that today is waning among artists no less than among the general population as well. For example, could you imagine any artist today working thirty years on a single painting. (I once worked on one for thirty days.) Okay, it was a BIG painting, but thirty years? It was an important painting too, depicting The Signing of the Declaration of Independence, and anyone who knows anything about American history will remind you there were 56 names signed on the dotted lines. (I only counted at most 44 heads in the painting.) And, I'll grant you, it takes a while to paint even just 44 portraits, but even at that, thirty years Incredible!
General George Washington, Before the
Battle of Trenton, 1792, John Trumbull

The artist, of course, was John Trumbull, and anyone who has ever cracked an American history book has, no doubt, seen the painting. Trumbull was fortunate enough to have been a young man when he started it. He was born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, and it takes very little math to quickly realize that date and place, just twenty years before the American Revolution puts the man front and center for one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the whole world. Trumbull was just finishing up at Harvard when the war started. He'd already begun a painting career studying with John Singleton Copley in Boston, and not unlike many young men inconvenienced by impending war, he split the country. He went to England to study painting with fellow countryman, Benjamin West. Perhaps feeling guilty however, he returned shortly to find himself appointed as an aide-de-camp to no less than the commanding general, Washington himself.
The Declaration of Independence, 1795, John Trumbull
The connections Trumbull established during the war years were to serve him well later on. Shortly after the war, Trumbull decided to pick up his art studies where he left off and returned to England.  Dumb move--he was picked up and charged with treason. Eventually the charges were dropped and he learned there how to paint in the English Grand Manner of West, Thomas Gainsborough, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Returning to this country, his head full of big ideas about painting the grand war in the grand manner of the Grand Manner, he started his epic, thirty-year painting. In the process, he quickly became regarded as the best portrait painter around, except for Gilbert Stuart. And when his rival was out of country, he did well, traveling up and down the East coast, capturing in oil sketches the likenesses of the men whose faces would fill his grand masterpiece. In the meantime, he managed to paint very competent portraits of nearly all the military and political figures of his time. Late in his life, building upon the popular success of his Declaration of Independence painting, he received a government commission to do four enormous history paintings for the rotunda of the new Capitol. But by that time, old and tired, and bitter over his having never received the credit he felt was due him as a great artist, he was well past his prime. The Capitol works are at best, stale and academic. In his declining years, an annuity from Yale College in exchange for his personal collection of paintings, saved him from poverty and in the process, established the Yale University Trumbull Museum. He died in 1843 at the age of eighty-seven, the most patient artist who ever lived.
Since 1976, the reverse side of the much-maligned two-dollar bill  has
featured a slightly cropped etching of Trumbull's thirty-year painting effort.

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