John Trumbull

Visualizing American Independence

November 5, 2016 – July 23, 2017

images of artworks in the exhibition John Trumbull: Visualizong American Independence

Three historic scenes created by America’s first history painter, John Trumbull, are central to this installation exploring visual interpretation of the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). An additional work by Trumbull is also featured in the exhibition, as well as works by modern artists who revisited the legacy of the war in the 20th century in observance of major anniversaries such as the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth in 1932 and the nation’s bicentennial in 1976.

John Trumbull (1756–1843) served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and later created a series of eight paintings devoted to the subject, explaining once to Thomas Jefferson that he hoped the paintings would “diffuse the knowledge and preserve the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever dignified the history of man.” After completing a second edition to adorn the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., Trumbull began a third and final series in 1831. Due to his failing health Trumbull was only able to complete five of the paintings, all of which were purchased by the trustees of the Wadsworth Atheneum. Trumbull’s Revolutionary War scenes were some of the museum’s inaugural objects, and were displayed when the first gallery opened in 1844.

Trumbull’s role as artist-historian encouraged later generations of artists to visually reinterpret the American Revolution and secure the legacy of its heroes. One of the most frequently portrayed subjects from this period is George Washington, whose image—especially after his death—became so symbolic that memorial portraits elevated him to a divine figure. Many portraits were made into engravings and mass-produced, providing artists with easy accessibility to Washington’s likeness for transfer onto textiles, decorative arts, jewelry, postage stamps, currency, and other objects. John Trumbull: Visualizing American Independence includes a range of such renditions, including several 19th century ceramic jugs decorated with Washington’s image and a 1975 color lithograph by Alex Katz.

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