John Trumbull, born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, was the youngest of six children of Jonathan Trumbull Sr. (1710–1785) and Faith Robinson Trumbull (1718–1780). His mother traced her lineage to The Rev. John Robinson, the pastor of the English Puritans in England and Holland. Jonathan Trumble, Sr. was a Harvard graduate who taught, engaged in mercantile business with his father, and fought as an officer in the French and Indian War. Most notably, he enjoyed a long career as an elected official, serving as Governor of Connecticut from 1769 to 1784. The senior Trumbull was the only colonial governor to wholeheartedly support the cause of American independence. (Trumbull, Connecticut; Trumbull County, Ohio; Trumbull College, Yale University; and Jonathan the Husky, the canine mascot of the University of Connecticut, are all named for him.)
John Trumbull, the artist, was, from the start, an anomaly, an undeniable aristocrat in a social and political movement at odds with the notion of aristocracy, and an artist whose family had hoped for its youngest son to pursue a lucrative career as a lawyer or merchant. Trumbull showed an early talent for “limning,” but despite entreaties to his father to be allowed to go to Cambridge to study art with John Singleton Copley, he was sent to Harvard where he failed to distinguish himself but nonetheless graduated in 1773. Trumbull’s early path to art was indirect, halting, and self-directed. Returning home after Harvard, he was soon caught up in the beginnings of the struggle for independence. By 1775, he was present at the battle of Bunker Hill, adjutant to family friend General Joseph Spencer of the First Regiment of Connecticut. Through the influence of his oldest brother, Joseph, commissary general of the American army, he was appointed as an aide-de-camp to George Washington. In Spring 1776, Trumbull was a deputy adjutant general serving under Major General Horatio Gates at Fort Ticonderoga. He still lacked an official commission, which only came through in February 1777. It failed to be retroactive to when he had begun service however, and after contentious attempts to correct the situation, Trumbull resigned from the army.
At home, in Lebanon, Trumbull’s family found his commitment to art impractical and inappropriate given the times. He left for Boston where rented the former studio of John Smibert. Copley was already in Europe, but Trumbull learned from the engravings left behind by Smibert. After a brief stint in 1779 in a brother’s tea and rum business, Trumbull decided to go to Europe for serious art study. He turned down an offer to be Benjamin Franklin’s secretary in Paris but did engage in some less than auspicious commercial schemes. Given his own background and his family connections, there has always been speculation that beginning in this period Trumbull was involved in clandestine political activities, at the least serving as a courier.
In 1780, Trumbull traveled to London and applied to study with Benjamin West (1738–1820). West was an American expatriate who was hugely successful in London as a painter of contemporary history and, since 1772, appointed history painter to the court of George III. West had made his name by adapting the revered tradition of history painting to depict contemporary political events. Obviously during the years of the colonial war for independence, West’s political position was particularly delicate. West scrupulously remained aloof from current hostilities. Not so his new pupil, whose letters home continued to be unequivocally partisan to the colonial cause. In November 1780, Trumbull was arrested and tried for treason, the target, he felt, of disgruntled American loyalists in London. The occasion for his detention was the execution of Major John Andre, a captured British spy, whom the patriots hanged despite attempts by the British to intercede. Trumbull was more fortunate. West pleaded for clemency with the King. Trumbull was held at Bridewell Prison for eight months and then, through the intervention of Edmund Burke, freed on the condition that he leave England. He proceeded to Amsterdam on a failed mission from his father to try to borrow money from Dutch bankers for the colonial cause. After a stormy six-month-long ocean crossing, he arrived home in January 1782.
Trumbull’s first months at home were spent as an invalid. Marooned, so to speak in America, he worked for his brother David, engaged in supplying the American army. He was biding his time. Still contending with his family over his future course, Trumbull returned to the studio of Benjamin West. He proved an avid student, fully conscious that he was making up for lost time. He studied with West and at the Royal Academy. West was generous in his treatment of his talented student and included Trumbull in his professional and social circle. According to William Dunlap, writing in his 1834 History of the Rise and Progress of The Arts of Design in the United States, by 1784, “Trumbull was ‘the established successor of Gilbert Stuart in West’s apartments” (as quoted in Cooper, p. 8). By 1785, Trumbull was confirmed in his intention to paint historic scenes of the American Revolution, encouraged by kind words from Thomas Jefferson, the American Minister to Paris who met Trumbull when Jefferson was on a visit to London. In the meantime, Trumbull managed to support himself as a portrait artist. He never lost sight, though, of his greater, and to him, much nobler goal: to achieve success and renown as a history painter.