John Trumbull (1756–1843) experienced the American Revolution firsthand—he served as an officer in the Continental Army under George Washington and was shot at and was jailed as a spy. He made it his mission to record the war, giving visual form to what most citizens of the new United States thought: that they had brought into the world a great and unprecedented political experiment. His purpose, he wrote, was “to preserve and diffuse the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves in the history of man.” Although Trumbull’s contemporaries viewed him as a painter, Trumbull thought of himself as a historian.
Richard Brookhiser tells Trumbull’s story of acclaim and recognition, a story complicated by provincialism, war, a messy personal life, and, ultimately, changing fashion. He shows how the artist’s fifty-year project embodied the meaning of American exceptionalism and played a key role in defining the values of the new country. Trumbull depicted the story of self-rule in the modern world—a story as important and as contested today as it was 250 years ago.