JOHN TRUMBULL (1756–1843)
The Burning of New London, about 1785
Oil on canvas, 14 x 20 in.
EX COLL.: Dr. Henry Jacob Bigelow (1818–1890), Boston, until 1863; to Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren (1811–1867), Boston, and by direct descent, until the present
The present identification of the subject matter and retitling of the picture as “The Burning of New London” is the result of a rigorous historical examination of the work by historian Carol Bundy. Studying details including the time of day, the time of year, and the uniforms of the soldiers, set against a list of towns burned by the British during the Revolution, Bundy makes a case that Trumbull’s picture can only represent the events, in 1781, at New London, Connecticut. That town was burned under the direction of British General Benedict Arnold. There are fascinating personal links between Trumbull, Arnold, and New London. Trumbull, in fact, had been a friend of Arnold, serving alongside him at Fort Ticonderoga and accompanying him to Newport, Rhode Island, when Arnold was a General in George Washington’s army. Trumbull and Arnold shared a common grievance, passed over for military promotions they believed were their due. Trumbull resigned his military position but continued to work for the American cause. Arnold, lured by money and the promise of glory, turned traitor. There is irony here. Arnold, commanding officer at West Point, escaped after his plot to turn over control to the British was discovered through the arrest of Major Andre. Trumbull, already in England by then, spent time in prison, arrested as retribution for the death of Andre. Thus, Trumbull was well acquainted with what Arnold looked like and was familiar with the popular account of the burning of New London that had been personally ordered by Arnold. Moreover, Trumbull’s father and brothers had mercantile connections in the port of New London, only twenty miles south and east of Lebanon.
The Burning of New London was painted while Trumbull was in London for a second time, once again working under the tutelage of West. Trumbull’s first period in London had ended in imprisonment and banishment. Jaffe speculates that the picture was incendiary in more than subject matter. It shows a British officer ordering the torching of an American town, with a terrified civilian population fleeing, including a mother and infant. In 1785, feelings about recent events were still raw. West, particularly, had every reason to avoid current political references. Trumbull would have had no desire to court English ill will or a second forced departure from London.