Thursday, January 7, 2010

Raleigh Antiques Roadshow: Trumbull engraving

The new season of Antiques Roadshow began on Monday night with the first of three episodes filmed last summer in Raleigh, North Carolina (click here to read blog on that event). An appraisal I did of one of the best American historical prints of the eighteenth century appeared on the show (click here to see video of this new appraisal). It was of a print of the Battle of Bunker's Hill by John Trumbull and today's post is to provide more information on this print, John Trumbull, and his other prints of early American history.

John Trumbull, a member of a prominent Connecticut family, was a participant in the American Revolution and a friend of most of the great figures of his day, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. After he left the army, Trumbull eventually found his way to the London studio of Benjamin West, under whom he studied. In the eighteenth century, the depiction of grand themes from mythological, sacred and classical history was one of the highest goals of any artist. West had taken the theme in a more secular direction, painting events from recent English history, depicting them in the grand European style of the more traditional themes. Inspired by his instructor, Trumbull early in his career became interested in this type of painting, conceiving of a series of canvases on the history of his own country. It was difficult to make a living from the sale of such paintings, and Trumbull realized there was a greater chance of profit to be made from selling engravings taken from the paintings. Thus he decided to proceed on such a project, testing the market in Europe and America for these prints. The first of his paintings to be made into a print was of a subject to which he was a spectator.

This print is "The Battle of Bunker's Hill" issued in London in 1798. The drama of the battle is strongly presented; the British forces are seen cresting the last defenses of the rebels, who continue to fight bravely. The central focus of the picture has an American and a British officer, Maj. John Small, restraining a ‘lobster back’ from bayoneting Maj. Gen. Joseph Warren, who lies mortally wounded in the midst of the chaos around him. This subject was one of particular interest to Trumbull, for during the battle he was stationed in Roxbury on the far side of Boston from Charlestown, from whence he could hear the sounds of the fighting.

Trumbull finished the painting for this print in 1786, and he arranged with London publisher Antonio C. de Poggi to have the print published. After three years delay, an engraver was found in Johann Gotthard von Muller, a professor of engraving from Stuttgart. Muller, who was engaged to engrave the plate in July 1788, took a long time with the engraving, informing Trumbull in July 1797 that the plate was ready for his final inspection. Poggi began to print the plate in November 1797, giving it a publishing date of early 1798.

That same year, de Poggi published the second engraving of a Trumbull painting, “Death of General Montgomery,” a stirring tableau intended as a companion to the Bunker Hill engraving. This image, which Trumbull started painting immediately after his Bunker Hill canvas, shows Montgomery at the Battle of Quebec in December 1775, dying from his wounds in the arms of his officers. The action of the battle and the drama of the expiring General are strongly presented. This plate had a more intricate history of production than the Bunker Hill print. Luigi Schiavonetti etched the figures, Wilson Lowry did the background, foreground and firearms, and Johan Frederick Clemens executed the rest of the engraving and finished the plate.

At about the same time as these two battle prints were published, Trumbull and de Poggi teamed up for a wonderful full length portriat of George Washington at Trenton. This was a stipple and line engraving done by Thomas Cheesman. It is based on a painting (currently at Yale University) that was commissioned by the city of Charleston, South Carolina in 1792. Choosing to depict Washington in a dramatic moment of decision the evening before the surprise attack, Trumbull wrote that he intended “to give his military character, in the most sublime moment of its exertion.” It is one of the best prints ever done of Washington, not surprising as Trumbull not only served on Washington's staff during the war, but was also on of Washington's personal friends. Trumbull considered it the “best certainly of those which I painted, and the best, in my estimation, which exists, [of Washington] in his military character.”

It wasn't until over two decades had passed that Trumbull's last great engraving of early American history appeared, the "Declaration of Independence." (I did an Antiques Roadshow appraisal of this print back in 2004 in Reno, Nevada. You can see a video of that appraisal by clinking here.)

The last of Trumbull’s patriotic series to be made into a print, this image of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was engraved and published in Philadelphia, almost three decades after Trumbull’s painting was finished. In part because of the decade long delay in producing the first two prints, their reception was less than overwhelming and the receipts covered only about three quarters of the expense. Thus Trumbull abandoned his original plan of producing engravings of all his historical paintings. Years later, in 1817, with the success of his large painting of the Declaration of Independence, commissioned to be hung in the U.S. Capitol, Trumbull decided to again try the market with a print of this scene.

The composition of this print was inspired by Trumbull’s friendly relationship with Thomas Jefferson. In conjunction with Jefferson and John Adams, Trumbull decided to show only accurate likenesses of the signers of the Declaration, in line with his concern of presenting a true memorial to this historic event. Trumbull drew images in person of all of the signers he could, using other life portraits or portraits of the sons for any of the other signers who were no longer alive or available. Originally Trumbull intended to have this print engraved in Europe, believing no American engraver was up to the job. However, there was something of an outcry against using a European for this American patriotic print. Thus Trumbull, in 1820, after becoming aware of the young artist, Asher B. Durand, and his excellent ability as an engraver, entrusted this task to the 22 year old American. He was not disappointed, for the engraving is excellent and Durand’s reputation was established to a great extent by his work on this print.

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