John Trumbull’s “Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill” is one of the most famous pictures of American history, an iconic image. In this dramatic scene, the British forces are shown cresting the last defenses of the rebels, who continue to fight bravely. Maj. Gen. Joseph Warren is seen lying mortally wounded, while one of his companions and British officer Maj. John Small restrain a ‘lobster back’ from bayoneting him. This image has appeared in many different formats since Trumbull first painted it in 1785-86, including in numerous prints issued for over two centuries. It is interesting that the publication of a print of this image was actually part of John Trumbull’s intent from the very beginning.
Trumbull, son of the Governor of Connecticut, was uniquely qualified to paint scenes of the American Revolution, as he served in the Continental army during the war and knew first-hand the characteristics of the American and British armies and the nature of this conflict. He also knew many of the participants of the Revolution and so was able to hear first-hand those events he did not himself participate in. During the battle of Bunker’s Hill, Trumbull was stationed in Roxbury, on the far side of Boston from Charlestown, whence he could hear the sounds of the battle.
Trumbull decided as a young man that he wanted to pursue a career as an artist and late in the war he sailed to England to study under Benjamin West, an American who had established himself so well there that he was appointed by King George III as historical painter to the court. At the time, historical painting was considered one of the highest forms of art, but most historical paintings showed mythological, sacred or classical history, and when contemporary events were depicted, the participants were shown in classical dress. West, had in 1770, broken with this tradition by painting the “Death of General Wolfe” with its participants in contemporary uniforms and setting.
There was some controversy over this, but West continued this course with further “modern” history paintings of “The Battle of La Hogue” and “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians.” West encouraged his pupil John Trumbull—-and possibly was even the originator of the idea—-to undertake a series of such painting on the history of the United States. West could not undertake this on his own because of his ties to the King, who would not have taken kindly to his court painter glorifying the recent victory of the Americans over the British.
In 1784, Trumbull took up this project as his main artistic ambition. He began with a painting of “The Death of General Warren at Battle of Bunker’s Hill” in the fall of 1785, finishing it the follow March. This canvas was called by Benjamin West “the best picture of a modern battle that has been painted” and it was well received by those who viewed it in West’s studio. Trumbull had absorbed the style and form of West’s work, but added to this his own personal knowledge of the individuals and the military dress, weapons and events of the time.
Trumbull was worried about the prospects of selling his American historical paintings, for not only would the subject likely rule out any English buyers, but there were in general less patrons who would purchase an historical painting than a personal portrait. To help with the financial situation, West encouraged Trumbull to have the paintings made into prints, for there was a better likelihood he would make money by selling prints than just from the paintings. West told Trumbull that West's painting of “The Battle of La Hogue” sold for only 500 guineas, but that the sale of prints, at one guinea each, had generated three times that amount. Thus from the start, Trumbull intended to have his American historical paintings made into prints, beginning with the first two canvases he was working on, the painting of the battle of Bunker Hill and one showing the death of General Montgomery at Quebec.
Through West, Trumbull met Antonio di Poggi, an artist and print publisher, who agreed to publish the prints for a share of the profits. They decided to look in Paris for an engraver, as no British engraver would dare to do the work on this subject matter. They searched through the summer and early fall of 1786 in Paris and then Frankfurt, with no success. When Trumbull returned to London in October 1786, Poggi kept the paintings to continue to look for an engraver. Poggi finally found Johann Gotthard von Müller, an engraver from Stuttgart, who agreed in July 1788 to undertake the engraving of Trumbull’s Bunker Hill.
In 1789, Trumbull sailed to America to work on promoting the sale of his forthcoming prints. At this stage the engraving by Müller was not progressing very fast. Trumbull tried to market his prints when he arrived and awaited proofs, which Poggi promised to send as soon as they were pulled, to show potential subscribers. In 1795, Trumbull visited Stuttgart and was satisfied with the progress Müller was making. Finally in July 1797, Trumbull heard from Müller that the plate was finished.
Shortly after that, the engraving of the “Death of Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec,” which had been assigned to other engravers, was also finished. Unfortunately, the sale of subscriptions for these prints did not go very well for Trumbull, covering only about three quarters of the cost of their production. This was likely primarily the result of the long delay between the original conception and its fruition, as by the end of the eighteenth century large patriotic engravings of the heroics of the Revolution were not in demand, as they likely would have been a decade earlier. The lack of financial success ended Trumbull’s plan to produce an entire series of engravings of the War of Independence.
Trumbull had, however, been working on a painting of the Declaration of Independence, for which he had spent much effort in making accurate likenesses of the participants. At the end of 1817, Trumbull decided to try again with the production of a print of this historical subject. Initially, he agreed to hire the English engraver James Heath, telling James Madison that he did not believe an American engraver had the experience or skill to produce a work of art of this magnitude. There was, however, something of an outcry about using a European engraver for this quintessential American subject, so Trumbull reconsidered and hired Asher B. Durand, the most accomplished American engraver of the period, to do the work.
The resulting print is a terrific example of both Trumbull’s art and Durand’s skill. However, Trumbull still had problems getting subscribers, even though he had already signed up the then four living Presidents—-Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. By the time the print was published in 1823, Trumbull had sold only about 275 subscriptions, just about breaking even.
These three prints, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Death of Montgomery, and Declaration of Independence, are among the most desirable American historical prints ever made. They are quite rare, but do come on the market from time to time. Because Trumbull's images are so iconographic, they have appeared in many other prints over the years, including some of considerable quality and some that are merely decorative. In the next blog I will talk about one print that is of particular interest and something of a puzzle.