Source: Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. (left) Major General Joseph Warren study for Bunker Hill, not dated , by John Trumbull (1756-1843), accession #1952.3.1b. The sketch has never been published or displayed publicly. (right) Death of Major General Joseph Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 [1785-86] also by John Trumbull, accession #1832.1 The side by side images were produced for this website by the web comic artist and graphic novelist Lora Innes, who is best known for the historical romance The Dreamer. Ms. Innes utilized insets from Trumbull’s sketch (which also shows General Montgomery for another work) and his final painting, both courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery. The sketch of Warren is rotated here minus 13 degrees, at which point it aligns almost perfectly with the finished painting.
Commentary: John Trumbull took great care in composing dramatic scenes and achieving accurate likenesses of both British and American figures involved in the battle. His soure for the mortally wounded Joseph Warren, the central vignette in his iconic Bunker’s Hill, remains unknown.
I believe that John Trumbull adapted his likeness of Warren from John Singleton Copley’s unfinished portrait of Warren, currently displayed at the Adams National Historic Site. Both Trumbull and Copley studied with Benjamin West in London at the time Trumbull composed and painted Bunker’s Hill. I speculate that Copley’s unfinished Warren portrait was actually his studio sketch in oil from which all other Warren likenesses are derivative; that John Adams saw it while sitting for his own Trumbull portrait in London circa 1784; the fanciful major general’s uniform was added at Adams’ request; and that Adams bought the Warren portrait at that time. Ms. Innes judges that Copley’s unfinished portrait of Warren may not be the original likeness, but Copley’s own copy of his 1765 three quarters sitting portrait of Dr. Warren, currently on exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Although my conjectures are untestable one way or another due to absence of surviving documentation, they may be of interest to art historians, students of American historical iconography, and Warren enthusiasts.
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 visually the era in heroic terms. Trumbull’s Bunker’s Hill and Declaration of Independence are instantly recognizable to all students of American history. Trumbull was an eyewitness to the battle and served on George Washington’s staff for a time before embarking on a career in painting. It is possible that Trumbull met Joseph Warren prior to mid-June 1775, but the young Connecticut militiaman was not known to have been drawing at that time. 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.
Gallery description: Graphite sketch, on same sheet as 1952.3.1b. Overall: 17.8 x 12.1 cm. (7 x 4 3/4 in.) Gift of Mrs. Robert F. Jeffreys. Kahn, 404A, IL D1A-1810