Artist John Trumbull had been in London only a short time in 1780 when he started working on a full-length portrait Great Britain’s arch American enemy George Washington. Trumbull, a former colonel in the Continental Army, was clearly violating the pledge he made to British officials not to participate in political activities. Ostensibly, he was in London simply to study art.
See Trumbull’s portrait of Washington at West Point: marvelous art with an even better story (part 1)
But Trumbull’s portrait of Washington had a direct political message: The leader of the American Revolution was a tall, handsome, confident man of honor (very important in the 18th century) who was set on defeating the mighty British Army.
That message would fall on willing ears, not only in some circles in London but also on the European continent — especially in France — where the British were despised. Once Trumbull had completed his portrait — a strikingly bright, detailed likeness of the general — he gave it to a sympathetic London printer who made hundreds of copies.
Before long, people all over Europe had their first glimpse of this American soldier, and they were impressed. Washington’s picture started turning up everywhere: books, magazines, and even as part of a wallpaper design.
But while many in Europe were impressed, many in London were aghast.
At this time, Londoners had gotten word on the betrayal of the Continental Army by Benedict Arnold, and that was good news. The bad news was that a British officer, John André, who had helped Arnold had been captured behind American lines. André was tried by a military tribunal, found guilty of being a spy, and hanged. That the Americans should commit such an act was shocking, even though the British had hanged Nathan Hale with much less due process.
As a partial act of retaliation, Trumbull was arrested and accused of spying.
Unlike with André, Trumbull had not be caught doing anything, and the hard evidence against him was thin at best. He spent seven months, mostly in a comfortable prison room where he could move about and entertain visitors. His mentor Benjamin West, the American who ran the studio where Trumbull was learning his art, appealed for his release directly to George III, as did other political influential men.
Eventually, he was released, and he left London for Amsterdam and from there back to America.
Source: Paul Staiti. Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes.
See also a previous post on another Revolutionary War artist Charles Willson Peale.
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