Trumbull’s Bunker Hill in the Making

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in about Warren

Source: Yale University Art Gallery, Study for Death of General Joseph Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, by John Trumbull, 1785-1786.  Catalog 2005.7.1.   It has never been publicly displayed.

Commentary:  John Trumbull (1756-1843) was an American painter who devoted his career to historical genre paintings and portraits depicting American Revolutionary era events and personalities.  Many of his paintings have defined the iconography of the era in heroic terms.  Trumbull’s Bunker Hill and Declaration of Independence are instantly recognizable to all students of American history.  Trumbull took great care in composing dramatic scenes and achieving accurate likenesses of both British and American figures involved in the battle.  Trumbull was an eyewitness to the battle and served on George Washington’s staff for a time before embarking on a career in painting.  Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, Trumbull advanced his art studies in London in the studio of expatriate Benjamin West.  In the aftermath of the execution of Major John Andre on October 2, 1780, Trumbull was imprisoned in England as a suspected spy for seven months during 1781.

Painted in 1785 and the early months of 1786, visiting Americans in London first viewed the finished painting.  It made a strong impression. Carefully engraved in 1798, it became one of the first widely distributed iconic images of the American Revolution.

Yale University Art Gallery acquired this sketch within the past decade.  Few historians know of its existence.  Notable differences from the finished painting include:  absence of the black militiaman in the right foreground, no devices evident on the flags, absence of Israel Putnam in the left background, and a relatively clean battlefield.  The bulk of Trumbull’s historical paintings and portrait miniatures were acquired by Yale University as the foundation of its art museum.  Trumbull’s finished painting Death of General Joseph Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 carries the catalog number 1832.1, denoting acquisition #1 of the museum at its inception in 1832.

Detailed description of the sketch from the gallery: Pen and ink, gray and brown ink washes, squared for transfer in graphite on off-white wove paper.  Sight: 14 x 20.6 cm (5 1/2 x 8 1/8 in.); Framed: 26.7 x 34.3 x 2.5 cm (10 1/2 x 13 1/2 x 1 in.).  Purchased with a gift from Robert L. McNeil, Jr., B.S. 1936S snd the John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, Fund.  Kahn, 403, 8 Pastels AM 18-19

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