Trumbull’s portrait of Washington at West Point: marvelous art with an even better story (part 1)

June 28, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

It’s one of the best paintings of George Washington that you have probably never seen. And the story behind it is even more interesting than the painting.

The painting is John Trumbull‘s portrait of George Washington at West Point. Washington is pictured in a heroic stance with his slave/servant Billy Lee to his left and the precipice on the Hudson River behind him on the right. It’s a marvelous and masterful work and has huge historical significance.

Trumbull has served as a colonel and aide-de-camp to Washington in the Continental Army, but he resigned after a dispute with Congress over his rank. He decided to devote himself to artistic endeavors and to advancing the revolutionary cause for which he had fought. Despite the fighting that had occurred, London was still open to Americans, and because American artist Benjamin West was there, it was still the best place for a young American artist to train.

So, in 1780, despite the hostilities that were raging and the part that he had played in them, Trumbull headed for London. He had promised to steer clear of political activities. That promise never seemed to mean much to him. Soon after arriving at West’s studio, he set to work on a large portrait of George Washington. Because the general was 3,000 miles away, Trumbull did it almost completely from memory (he managed to gather a few prints and portraits of Washington for reference), and the result was striking. Washington is handsome, calm, and confident, high on an overlook with the river and rocks below him.

The political implications of the portrait were obvious. This proud, young, handsome American was in charge and was likely to defeat his British adversaries.

Trumbull had exceptional artistic ability. What happened next showed that he had exceptional good fortune.

NEXT WEEK: A spy is hanged, and it isn’t John Trumbull.

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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