Painter. The first significant painter of subjects from American history, he is known also for portraits and landscapes. His four representations of events from the Revolutionary era number among eight large paintings embellishing the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Trumbull was born into a prominent family in Lebanon, Connecticut. Before he graduated from Harvard College in 1773, he had decided to become a painter. His progress was slowed by the Revolution, in which he served for more than two years, part of the time as an aide to General George Washington. After resigning his commission (he nevertheless always remained attached to the honorific title of colonel), he settled in Boston in 1778. With its strongly modeled figures and shiny table top, the Family of Jonathan Trumbull (Yale University Art Gallery, 1777) demonstrates his admiration for the work of John Singleton Copley, who had earlier given advice to the young artist. Trumbull departed in 1780 for Europe. After a brief stay in France, he continued on to London, where Benjamin West agreed to take him as a student. Within a few months, Trumbull was arrested as a spy, convicted, jailed for more than half a year, and expelled from the country. He returned home, by way of Holland, but in 1783 departed again for London, where he worked at the Royal Academy as well as in West's studio. Soon he determined to make his reputation with a series devoted to the history-making events that had recently occurred in America. Inspired by West's and Copley's successes, he followed their lead in depicting subjects with narrative vigor, moral seriousness, and accurate detail. Although he had initially envisaged fourteen subjects, he completed eight modestly sized oil paintings (all Yale University Art Gallery) that were intended both as models for engravings and as source material for the enlargements he hoped to produce. Before August 1786, he had completed the first two, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill and The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec. These accompanied him to Paris, where he sojourned for several months at the invitation of Thomas Jefferson, then the American minister to France. There, with its author's assistance, he began The Declaration of Independence, which shows Jefferson presenting a draft to John Hancock before a large gathering of participants. Trumbull returned to Paris the following year to add to this work life portraits of Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as likenesses of French officers in his rendition of The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. The eight Revolution paintings, along with the portrait studies made in preparation for them, are regarded as Trumbull's finest and most original achievement. Demonstrating the fluent, painterly style he had mastered in London, the richly hued, carefully composed narratives convey his patriotic themes with romantic intensity.
Trumbull returned to America late in 1789, planning to arrange for engravings of his paintings and to continue his visual research. While also accepting independent portrait commissions, during the next few years he visited Revolutionary sites and made many small, often miniature-sized, oil likenesses of participants in the events he wished to paint. These tiny, sparklingly animated busts number among the most appealing portraits of his career. However, he was able to attract little support for his historical project. Discouraged, he virtually ceased painting after accepting an appointment in 1793 as secretary to Supreme Court justice John Jay, whom he accompanied to London in the following year. For some years Trumbull remained active in Europe as a diplomat and businessman. After 1800 he gradually resumed painting but rarely recaptured his prior technical facility and fervent sentiment. In 1804 he moved to New York, where he found considerable success as a portraitist, although many of these later works seem dry and conventional, especially in comparison to the contemporary work of Gilbert Stuart. A few landscapes from this period prefigure Hudson River School accomplishments. Trumbull spent the years from 1808 to 1815 once again in England.