Ten years after the American colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull traveled the country in a carriage seeking out all the men who signed the document. He wanted to paint their likenesses in a monumental work depicting the nation’s founding moment.
He carried a small painting, protected by a special case, to which he added each portrait as he found each member of the revolutionary Congress.
Trumbull traveled to Boston, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Virginia to find the Founding Fathers. He went to Paris and London to consult with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And he went to Philadelphia to capture the room where the Continental Congress met.
The small painting, 21” by 31”, became the model for the giant 12’ by 18’ painting that hangs in the Capitol Rotunda.
Since then, John Trumbull’s image of the nation’s founding moment has been reproduced millions of times. It is etched indelibly in the American consciousness.
It’s amazing he got it done — but he did get a few things wrong.
John Trumbull believed he was uniquely suited to paint the history of the American Revolution. His father, Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, thought he’d be better off as a lawyer or minister.
He was born in Lebanon, Conn., in 1756, the youngest of Jonathan and Faith Trumbull’s six children. As a child he lost an eye when he fell down a flight of stairs.
He attended Harvard, but studied art on the side over his father’s objections. After graduation he joined the First Regiment of Connecticut, rising to the rank of colonel and serving as an aide to George Washington. He watched the Battle of Bunker Hill, which he later painted.
In 1780, John Trumbull went to London, where his mentor, Benjamin West, advised him to paint scenes of the Revolution. When Maj. John Andre was hanged as a spy, British outrage led to Trumbull’s arrest. He spent seven months in prison until his friends got him released.
Support From Jefferson
Trumbull had told Thomas Jefferson he intended to paint a series of historical paintings. Jefferson liked the idea so much he asked Trumbull to stay with him in Paris, where he served as minister to France. He urged Trumbull to paint the presentation of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson gave Trumbull a sketch he’d drawn of the room in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall where the Continental Congress met. Trumbull later visited the room and found it modernized. Jefferson’s sketch, though, allowed him to recreate the look. He made up the flag and drum on the wall and put the delegates in fancier chairs than they’d actually used.
The Small Painting
In 1786, John Trumbull returned to the United States and began a small painting on which he based the larger work. It took him 33 years to complete.
The painting showed the moment on June 28, 1776, when the five-man committee that wrote the document — Jefferson, Roger Sherman, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin — presented it to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. The painting didn’t show the signing, which took place a month later.
No written record existed of who was there and who wasn’t. Trumbull consulted Jefferson and Adams. Should he include everyone who might have been in the room that day? Should he include the men who opposed the Declaration? What if the member had died, and he couldn’t find an image of him?
42 + 5 – 14
Jefferson and Adams agreed Trumbull should include the Declaration’s signers, along with those who opposed it. In the end, Trumbull painted 47 men, five of whom did not sign the Declaration of Independence. Fourteen signers did not appear in the painting because Trumbull had no image of them.
Trumbull painted Franklin and John Adams in London, Jefferson in Paris and John Hancock and Sam Adams in Boston. He painted Edward Rutledge in Charleston, S.C., George Wythe in Williamsburg, Va., and Josiah Bartlett in Exeter, N.H.
He took nine portraits from images painted by others. Trumbull painted Gen. William Whipple of New Hampshire from memory. He had no image of Benjamin Harrison, but based his portrait on Harrison’s son, who resembled his father.
The Capitol wasn’t even rebuilt from damage caused in the War of 1812 when John Trumbull got the commission to paint four monumental paintings to hang in the rotunda. He received $8,000 per painting, a sum that would have cheered his father.
But he was 62 years old and had only one good eye. Critics saw he’d started to lose his touch with his portraits of Thomas Lynch, Samuel Chase, Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton. Some thought his large painting wasn’t as good as the smaller, original version.
John Randolph of Virginia didn’t like the painting at all. He said it should be called ‘Shin-piece,’ for ‘surely never was there before such a collection of legs submitted to the eyes of man.’
Some say it looks as if Jefferson stands on John Adams’ foot, representing their troubled relationship. The Architect of the Capitol says no. The painting had suffered from humidity, smoke and dirt. So restorers overpainted the feet to repair damage, which created the impression.
Fame, No Fortune
Despite its critics, the Declaration of Independence painting quickly became one of the most famous in American history.
It was immediately reproduced as an engraving, one of which Lafayette framed and hung on his bedroom wall. Currier and Ives printed and sold thousands of copies. It appeared on the two-dollar bill and as a postage stamp. A reproduction hangs in the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford.
In 1830, John Trumbull was living in a New York City apartment filled with his paintings. He was short of money. He and Yale professor Benjamin Silliman agreed he would donate his paintings to Yale for a lifetime annuity of $1,000. Yale had to house them in a fireproof building that Trumbull designed.
And so the Yale University Art Gallery – the first college art museum — began in 1832 to house Trumbull’s paintings.
John Trumbull died in 1843. He and his wife Sarah were buried beneath the Yale University Art Gallery.
This story about John Trumbull was updated in 2021.