Page images
PDF
EPUB

Project of a series of pictures.

359

These two beautiful little pictures were carried to the city of Washington in 1816-17, (as we shall hereafter notice,) and shown to the members of congress, as inducements to employ the painter in patriotic works for the capitol: but although their merits gained employment for the artist, the senators and representatives saw at once that such subjects were not fitted for the decoration of the rotunda. Had the Battle of Bunker's Hill represented the true point of time-the triumph of our militia and their gallant leaders over the disciplined veterans of Britain, there can be no doubt that the picture would have been copied for the nation.

The fourth and last historical composition which Mr. Trumbull finished while under the eye of West, was another triumph of the arms of Great Britain over her enemies. The Sortie from Gibraltar is perhaps the best of Mr. Trumbull's works.

Mr. Trumbull had proved that he could succeed in historical composition on the miniature scale, which was best suited for the purposes of the engraver. The American revolution had terminated happily for the cause of justice and humanity. It was popular on the continent of Europe. The immense traffic in prints which had been established by England, presented a field for the accumulation of wealth. To paint a series of pictures on subjects connected with the American revolution, was obviously a speculation worthy of attention. Pine, an English artist, had already gone to America for the purpose. It could not escape the attention of Mr. Trumbull's mind that he would have advantages over every rival. To paint the events of the struggle for freedom in America, and by a copartnership with European engravers spread prints of the size of the original pictures, was a feasible project, offering both fame and fortune. No man could better advise in the execution of such a plan than West, who had long circulated prints from his pictures wherever art or literature were known. Under such circumstances, and with such views, Mr. Trumbull made his arrangements for carrying into effect a project, of which every artist must lament the failure.

Let us now recur to the narrative. Mr. Trumbull says: "The success of this picture," the Priam and Hector, "induced him to commence a project which had long been floating in his mind, of painting a series of pictures of the principal scenes of the revolution. He began with the 'Battle of Bunker Hill,' which was composed and finished in the early part of the year 1786. In the three subsequent months of the same year, the Death of Montgomery before Quebec,' was composed and painted. The pictures met with general approbation, not only

360

The picture of the “Sortie.”

in London, but in Paris, Berlin, Dresden, and other parts of the continent. They were as soon as possible placed in the hands of eminent engravers, for the purpose of being" published from the press. "Among others, they were seen by Mr. John Adams, then in London, and Mr. Jefferson in Paris, to whom the project was communicated of painting a series of national pictures, which was highly approved, and by their concurrence the subjects were chosen, (several of which have been since executed,) and he proceeded to arrange and adjust the composition of those subjects.

"Finding that the painting of Bunker Hill had given of fence in London, and being desirous to conciliate, he determined to paint one subject from British history, and selected the Sortie of the Garrison of Gibraltar. Of this the first study was made in oil, twelve by sixteen inches, and was presented to Mr. West, (figures carefully finished,) as an acknowledgment for his kindness. Then a second picture was painted, twenty by thirty, carefully and laboriously finished, with the intention of having it engraved. This picture was sold to Sir Francis. Baring for five hundred guineas, who contracted for the purchase of a series of pictures of American subjects at the same price, subject to the contingency of the higher powers. He found that the possession of the pictures proposed would give offence in a very high quarter, and therefore retracted. Having engaged Mr. Sharpe, the first engraver of the age, to engrave the picture, he was tenacious of rendering the composition as perfect as in his power, he therefore rejected that picture, and began another six feet by nine. This picture occupied the principal part of the year 1788, and was finished in the spring of 1789, when it was exhibited by itself in Spring Garden, London, and received great applanse. This picture was engraved by Sharpe, and has since been purchased by the Athenæum of Boston, where it now is."

The reason given by Mr. Trumbull for choosing this subject, "must give us pause." "The painting of Bunker Hill had given offence in London, and being very desirous to conciliate," he painted a third victory of the English over their enemies, to appease them for having painted the two which preceded it. Who had been offended by the triumphs of Howe and Carlton over Prescott and Montgomery, that were to be conciliated by the triumph of Elliot over the French and Spanish, allies of America? But so it is-and this conciliatory painting, after being offered for years to the conciliated people, is finally purchased by the citizens of Boston. That it is so, is matter of congratulation to Americans.

Mr. Trumbull at New-York, 1789.

361

We see that Mr. Trumbull painted his subject three timesthe first given to Mr. West, very small-the second sold to Baring, and the third and largest now in Boston. If, after painting these pictures, Mr. Trumbull had been lost to the world, there would have been just reason to exclaim, as it respects his reputation for painting, "Now to die, were now to be most happy;" for certainly the world would have said, "Had he lived, he would have been the greatest artist of his age." The world would have lost many beautifully painted miniature heads, and pictures of merit by this consummation—all we mean to say is, that Mr. Trumbull's reputation as a painter has not been enhanced by any thing he has done since the "Sortie."

In 1787 Mr. Trumbull was in Paris; and in the house of Mr. Jefferson, our minister to France, he painted the portrait of that eminent statesman and patriot, and likewise the portraits of the French officers who assisted Washington in the capture of Cornwallis at Yorktown. We now return to the narrative:

"In the mean time the present constitution of the United States had been framed, and the first session of congress was appointed to be held in New-York in December, 1789; the time had therefore arrived for proceeding with the American pictures. (He had already obtained the portrait of Mr. Adams in London, and Mr. Jefferson sat to him for his in Paris.) Sailed for America, and arrived in New-York, November, 1789, and proceeded to paint as many of the heads of the signers of The Declaration of Independence' as were present, and of General Washington at Trenton and Princeton."

[ocr errors]

These portraits, of such persons as had been in congress at the signing of the declaration of independence, or had afterwards signed it,* and of Washington, for the pictures of the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, are among the most admirable miniatures in oil that ever were painted. The same may be said of the portraits in the small picture of the "Surrender of Cornwallis."

Mr. Trumbull at this period published a prospectus of his intended work, and solicited subscriptions for the prints of Bunker Hill and Quebec. He obtained nearly three hundred subscribers, at six guineas, for the two prints, and half the

Mr. Trumbull, in a work published by him in 1832, says, that Adams and Jefferson advised him to introduce the portraits of those who afterwards signed, as if present at the time of the important resolution; that is, to violate historical truth.

362

Large full-lengths in 1790-91 & 92.

money paid at the time of subscription. In May, 1794, he returned to England, as secretary to Mr. Jay, and was announced by that gentleman to the English ministry as Colonel Trumbull. In 1796 he received the appointment of agent for impressed seamen; but Mr. Jay having concluded a treaty with Great Britain, by which commissioners were to be appointed to carry into effect an article respecting illegal captures, Mr. Trumbull was chosen as a fifth by the four commissioners who had been chosen by the two governments, and he accepted that as preferable to the first. Between 1794 and 1796, it will be seen that Mr. Trumbull was engaged in mercantile speculation. But I am anticipating his own narrative, to which I now return:

"In the summer of 1790 he painted the full-length portrait, in the council-room, City Hall, New York, of General Washington, size of life; and in 1791, that of Governor George Clinton, in the same room."

These two large full-lengths are in a style totally different from that Mr. Trumbull afterwards adopted; and the lastmentioned is, in my opinion, the best large-sized picture he ever painted. It represents the revolutionary governor in his capacity of general, defending Fort Montgomery, on the Hudson it is strikingly like, with an heroic and historical expression, and the distant figures are beautifully touched in.

"In 1792 he painted another full-length portrait of Washington for the city of Charleston, with a horse; and in the back-ground a view of that city. At the same time he painted another, which is now at the college at New Haven, to which it was presented by the state society of the Cincinnati. This latter portrait is regarded, by the artist, as the finest portrait of General Washington in existence. It represents him at the most critical moment of his life, on the evening before the battle of Princeton, meditating his retreat before a superior enemy. At the time this picture was painting, Signor Ceracchi executed a bust, of which there is a colossal cast in the collection of the American Academy of the Fine Arts. The best evidence that can be given of the correctness of both these productions of art is to be found in the close resemblance they bear to each other, although executed by different hands and in materials so dissimilar."

The reader will remark, that Mr. Trumbull emphasises the word "General." This refers to Stuart's portrait, which was painted a short time after, and is presumed to represent President Washington. But Washington was president when Trumbull painted his portrait, and when Ceracchi sculptured.

Mr. Trumbull, Secretary to Mr. Jay.

363

his bust. Let it be further remarked, that the original bust of Washington, by Ceracchi, is not colossal. It is the size of life, is very unlike the colossal, and is in the collection of the late Richard Mead, Esq. This last mentioned is very similar to Stuart's original picture, and very like the heroic original, but totally unlike the picture at Yale College; which, as a picture, has much merit, and was painted in Mr. Trumbull's best days.

The narrative proceeds :-"A few other portraits were painted about this time; but the years '91, '92, and '93, were principally spent in paining original portraits for the historical pictures. In the accomplishment of his great design he travelled from New Hampshire to Charleston, in South Carolina. The head of General Lincoln, at the surrender of York Town, was painted in Boston. Edward Rutledge, Hayward, and William Washington, were painted in Charleston. The heads painted at this period are in the small set of pictures now at New Haven. They are the originals of the whole work, and were all painted from the living men-persevering in the object of obtaining authentic portraits."

[blocks in formation]

Mr. Trumbull returns to England as secretary to Mr. Jay-engages in commerce and speculation-appointment as a fifth, by the four commissioners under Jay's treaty-Travels in Germany and France-marriage-return to America, 1804-exhibits a number of fine pictures-his style of painting changed for the worse-returns to London in 1809-paints historical pictures unsuccessfullycharges against Mr. West.

"DIFFICULTIES had existed between the late belligerents ever since the war, and they were of the most embasrassing character. Mr. Jay was appointed minister to Great Britain, for the purpose of bringing these subjects of mutual complaints and grievances to an end," negotiating a treaty of amity and commerce, &c. "and Mr. Jay appointed him his secretary. This afforded T. an opportunity of attending to the finishing of his three large copper-plates, which were at that time engraving in London, Copenhagen, (struck out) "and at Stutgard, in Germany, and at an expense of upwards of 3000 guineas.'

* In 1833 these plates are said to be in the possession of Illman and Pilbro, engravers, at New York. Pilbro says, he bought them of some one in London, within a year, and this person purchased them of another, who found them at a pawnbroker's.

« PreviousContinue »