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The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton
by John Trumbull

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton by John Trumbull is one of a series of Revolutionary War paintings created by this famous Founding era painter. It was painted in 1786 when Trumbull was living in London and studying with the famous painter Benjamin West.

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton by John Trumbull

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The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton
by John Trumbull, 1786

The painting depicts the surrender of Hessian troops to George Washington after the surprise Christmas battle on December 26, 1776 at Trenton, New Jersey. In case you aren't sure what "Hessians" are, Hessians were German soldiers hired by Britain to help them fight against the Americans. The Hessians were thought by some to be the most ferocious military force on earth and they were greatly feared by the Americans.

After a series of defeats, George Washington conceived the idea to capture the Hessian garrison at Trenton on the day after Christmas because he knew they would be tired and unprepared from their celebrations the night before. The Americans took the town in only 45 minutes with few casualties and captured nearly 1,000 men. The small victory greatly boosted the sagging American morale.

The painting shows Hessian Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall mortally wounded on the ground, while George Washington sits astride a horse in the center of the painting, flanked by his aides Lt. Col. Robert Harrison and Captain Tench Tilghman, giving directions to Major William Stephens Smith to care for the dying colonel. The scene is not historically accurate, but was a creation of Trumbull's mind, though all the people represented actually took place in the battle. Trumbull later wrote in his autobiogrphy, "I composed the picture, for the express purpose of giving a lesson to all living and future soldiers in the service of their country, to show mercy and kindness to a fallen enemy - their enemy no longer when wounded and in their power."

John Trumbull personal life

John Trumbull was the son of Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, who was the only Royal Governor to renounce England and side with the colonists. Born in 1756, young John showed promise as an artist at a young age, but this profession was deemed to be beneath the family by his father. When John attended Harvard at age 15 in 1773, he met the famous artist John Singleton Copley who showed John some of his works and gave him some lessons. This made John determined to be an artist.

John Trumbull by Gilbert Stuart

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John Trumbull by
Gilbert Stuart

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1st Art Gallery

After graduating Harvard at 17, he joined the Connecticut militia at the outbreak of the American Revolution and marched to Boston with his fellow soldiers. While in Boston, he observed the Battle of Bunker Hill and was given the task of sketching the British positions on Boston Neck due to his drawing ability. The drawings came to the attention of General George Washington who appointed John as one of his aides.

John served under Washington and General Horatio Gates for a few years before leaving the military and moving to England with the hope of studying with the Royal painter, Benjamin West. While studying with West, he finished his first George Washington Portrait in 1780 from memory and developed the idea to create a series of paintings of the most important scenes of the American Revolution. He hoped one day to be commissioned to create the paintings for the new American government.

Trumbull began work on his first two scenes of the American Revolution around 1783-84, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill and The Death of General Montgomery at Quebec. He met Thomas Jefferson in 1785, who invited him to Paris, where he also met John Adams.

Trumbull showed the two patriot leaders his first two Revolution scenes and shared with them his idea to create a series of such scenes. Jefferson and Adams encouraged him in his idea and helped him choose ten more scenes to create. He would eventually create eight of them.

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

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Declaration of Independence
by John Trumbull

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Trumbull returned to London and continued work on his paintings, finishing The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton in 1786. In the next few years, he also finished The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton and The Declaration of Independence, which would become his most famous painting.

Return to the United States

He moved back to the United States in 1789 and settled in New York City, where he met with and painted leading patriot figures, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and George Clinton and also rekindled his friendship with George Washington, who sat for his own portrait several times. For the next several years, Trumbull traveled around the United States, creating new paintings and visiting the sites that were the subjects of many of his paintings.

When Trumbull worked on paintings that contained famous figures, he would often paint the entire scene, but would leave out the heads of the people, hoping to meet them in person and paint them from real life. He carried unfinished canvases with him for years and did indeed paint many of these people from real life. Others, whom he did not meet in person, he would paint from the portraits of other artists.

As most of the artists at that time did, Trumbull made a living from reproducing his own works. Later editions of the same paintings would be slightly different as the artist added in new details or adjusted certain aspects of the painting that didn't look quite right the first time. In Trumbull's case, he would add in new details he learned from visiting the Revolutionary War sites and from meeting the subjects of his paintings in person.

After touring the United States, Trumbull served for a time with John Jay in London during the negotiation of the Jay Treaty which ended certain disagreements remaining between Britain and the United States after the war.

Commission for Capitol murals

Trumbull had tried for years to get the government to commission his works, but to no avail. Finally, after the Capitol was partially destroyed during the War of 1812 and had to be rebuilt, Trumbull was rewarded with the opportunity of a lifetime. In 1817, he was commissioned by Congress to create four gigantic murals in the Capitol's rotunda.

President Madison chose the paintings which would be included in the new Capitol and they included Trumbull's The Declaration of Independence, The Surrender of General Burgoyne, The Resignation of Washington and The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown by John Trumbull

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Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown
by John Trumbull

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Trumbull was in his 60's by this time and it took him eight years to reproduce the eighteen by twelve foot paintings. Unfortunately, people at that time were not extremely pleased with his work. It was believed that they were inferior to his smaller works on the same subjects. Scholars think this was partly due to the fact that Trumbull could only see from one eye and due to his not being trained in how to paint such large murals. Trumbull's smaller pieces are thought to be quite superior due to his only having one eye, but on these large works, he seemed to be unable to gauge depth properly, making the murals seem quite flat.

Trumbull suffered with financial difficulties all his life and came up with an idea to sell all his works to Yale College for an annuity. After presenting his plan to the Yale Board of Trustees, they agreed to house his works and build a museum to display them, in exchange for an annual sum of $1,000, which Trumbull was able to live on for the rest of his life.

Trumbull passed away in New York City in 1843 and was buried under the building the Trumbull Gallery at Yale, which stood until 1901. It was the first art museum belonging to an American university.

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.

Published 11/23/11

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