George Washington Portrait
by John Trumbull
This George Washington Portrait was the first painting of George Washington by the Revolutionary War artist John Trumbull. Trumbull was the son of Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, the only Royal Governor to break from England and side with the Americans. John worked on Washington's staff for a period of time at the outbreak of the war and painted this picture from memory about five years later while he was studying painting with the famous painter Benjamin West in London. He would eventually paint George Washington seven times.
John Trumbull showed artistic talent at a young age and entered Harvard at age 15. He hoped to become a painter, but his father believed such manual work was below the family's station and consequently he pushed him toward ministry or law.
While at Harvard, Trumbull met the famous and successful John Singleton Copley, another artist who had made his name painting various colonial figures, such as Paul Revere, John Hancock and Samuel Adams. This meeting and a few lessons with Copley made young John all the more determined to become an artist.
Trumbull graduated from Harvard at the age of 17 just prior to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He joined the army in his home state of Connecticut and was appointed Adjutant of the 1st Connecticut Regiment under General Joseph Spencer. While at Boston, he observed the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Due to his drawing skill, he was appointed the duty of drawing sketches of the British positions on Boston Neck below Dorchester Heights. The drawings were so well done that they came to the attention of the Continental Army's Commander-in-Chief, George Washington. Washington appointed Trumbull as one of his aides on July 27, 1775. He would have been nineteen years old. This started a lifelong friendship between Trumbull and Washington.
In 1776, Trumbull was appointed an aide to General Horatio Gates under whom he served at Fort Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga, but he resigned less than a year later. He started a small painting studio in Boston and served for a short time as an aide to General John Sullivan during the Battle of Rhode Island. Eventually, though, he gave up military service and set sail for England in the fall of 1779, where he hoped to study with one of the pre-eminent painters in Europe, Benjamin West, official "Painter of Historical Subjects" for King George III.
Trumbull did indeed end up studying with West and produced his first painting of George Washington the following year. This painting was painted from memory and depicts George Washington standing along the bank of the Hudson River across from the fort at West Point, New York.
The fort lies across the river in the distance and is topped by a red and white flag, probably a First Navy Jack Flag, which was first flown in 1775.
Over Washington's left shoulder, is his long time servant Billy (or Will) Lee. Billy served Washington from the time he was a teenager and stayed on to continue living at Mt. Vernon after Washington's death, until his own death, even though Washington freed him in his will. Billy was an excellent horseman and served Washington in the most intimate of matters, such as combing Washington's long hair. Billy also rode along beside Washington in battle, ready to do anything that was needed by the Commander-in-Chief.
This George Washington portrait was painted in 1780, when John Trumbull was only 24 years old. Since this was even before the end of the American Revolution, it became one of the first likenesses of George Washington to be seen by Europeans. It was engraved and copied on a widespread basis and formed the first image of George Washington in the minds of many on the other side of the Atlantic.
John Trumbull eventually formed a plan whereby he would create a series of depictions of the famous events of the American Revolution. He hoped to convince the US government to actually commission these works one day.
He began working on smaller paintings of those events he hoped to one day produce in much grander fashion, including The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill and The Death of General Montgomery at Quebec. In 1785, Trumbull met Thomas Jefferson, who was then the American ambassador at Paris. Jefferson invited Trumbull to come to Paris where he showed Jefferson and John Adams, who was then the American Minister to Great Britain, his two finished paintings.
Jefferson and Adams both encouraged Trumbull in his vision to paint the important events from the Revolution and helped him determine another ten events which he should paint. Trumbull eventually painted eight of them, which are currently owned by the Yale Museum of Art.
Trumbull drew a sketch of the signing of the Declaration of Independence while at Jefferson's home in Paris, with the Ambassador's help and recollections. His The Declaration of Independence would become probably his most famous work. He then returned to London where he continued working on and finished several of his other Revolutionary War paintings, including The Declaration of Independence, Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton.
Trumbull returned to the United States in 1789 and spent several years traveling and painting famous people. He visited many Revolutionary War sites and sketched the local landscapes for inclusion in his paintings, including Saratoga, Princeton, Trenton and Yorktown.
Trumbull had finished his paintings in London as much as he could, but conspicuously did not finish the heads. Instead, he carried the canvases around with him in the US for years, in hopes that he would be able to actually meet the figures portrayed and have them sit before him. Indeed, many of the important figures did end up sitting for their portraits, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others.
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Trumbull spent many years trying to get the government to commission his series of Revolutionary War paintings. He was finally rewarded with the commission in 1817. The United States Congress commissioned him to paint four large murals in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. President Madison consulted with Trumbull and made the final choices for which scenes should be painted. Four of Trumbull's paintings were chosen to be reproduced in gigantic proportions, The Declaration of Independence, The Surrender of General Burgoyne, The Resignation of Washington and The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis.
Trumbull was nearly 60 by this time and his work had begun to suffer. It took eight years for him to finish the large murals, which were eighteen feet wide by twelve feet high. Today, these works in the Capitol are celebrated, but at the time of their creation the public was generally disappointed with them. Trumbull was excellent at painting portraits and smaller works, but most scholars agree he was not adequately trained to paint such large murals and the work was of much lesser quality than his originals. In addition, Trumbull could see with only one eye since the time of his childhood. Many scholars believe his attention to detail was aided by this infirmity on smaller works, but for larger works, he couldn't correctly gauge depth and consequently the murals look somewhat flat.
To learn more about other paintings of George Washington, go to our George Washington Pictures page.
You can also learn more about President Washington's life at our George Washington Facts page.
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