Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of William West (1724-1808), 1794 

John Trumbull (1756-1843)

Portrait of William West (1724-1808), 1794, John Trumbull
oil on mahogany panel
18th Century
4 x 3 1/8 inches, 10 x 8cm
Presented by the artist to the sitter’s brother, 1794; Sold at auction in 2008 from an English Private Collection, as by ‘J Humbert’.
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This previously unpublished picture was painted in 1794 by the American artist John Trumbull, and is a fine example of the artist’s small-scale portraits painted on mahogany panels. Other examples include the portrait of Thomas Jefferson in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The sitter here is William West, the brother of Benjamin West, the American artist who had settled in England at the outbreak of the War of Independence, and who would later become the President of the Royal Academy of Art in London. This portrait is an important addition to Trumbull’s oeuvre, having been lost since it was in the ownership of Benjamin West. It was recently sold at auction as by an unknown artist called ‘Humbert’, presumably after an erroneous transcription of the contemporary label on the back of the panel.

Despite his later reputation as one of the first successful American painters, Trumbull was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to become an artist. First, he was blind in one eye. He then had to battle against the wishes of his father Jonathan Trumbull, later Governor of Connecticut, who viewed painting as a manual trade below his family’s status. Although Trumbull had professed a desire to paint from an early age, he was sent to Harvard in preparation to become either a lawyer or a priest.

A chance meeting with John Singleton Copley in 1771 in Boston encouraged Trumbull to continue to study art, and while at Harvard he made copies of the portraits on display, many of which were in fact by Copley. Trumbull graduated in 1773, and immediately set about establishing himself as an artist in Connecticut (thus earning the distinction of being the first college-educated American artist). He enjoyed little immediate success, however, and at the outbreak of the Revolution he joined the army in the staff of General Joseph Spencer. His artistic skills came in use when he was despatched to make sketches of English fortifications at Boston. He later served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington, but left the army, as a Colonel, in 1777.

Determined to try painting once more he rented the studio of John Smibert in Boston, teaching himself and making copies of Smibert’s work. Success continued to elude him, however, and he left for France in 1780 on behalf of his family’s business interests. In the same year Trumbull crossed the Channel to England, and there sought the acquaintance of Benjamin West, who was by then well established as a portraitist and history painter. Trumbull at last had a chance to study painting professionally, and persuaded West to take him on as a pupil.

But England was, of course, still at war with the Americans, and Trumbull had the misfortune to be arrested and charged with treason, a crime which carried the death sentence. It was only the intervention of West, who was a particular favourite of King George III, that secured Trumbull’s release, and, after eight months in prison he was deported back to America. By now irrepressible in his desire to become a professional artist, Trumbull once more returned to England, in 1784 (three years after the end of hostilities) to complete his studies under West. Trumbull at last found success, and by 1786 had finished two important scenes depicting battles of the War, one of which, Bunker’s Hill (Yale University Art Gallery), he had witnessed himself. He also began his most famous picture, ‘The Declaration of Independence’ (Yale University Art Gallery), in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson, then the United States’ ambassador in Paris, who gave Trumbull detailed descriptions of the event. Some of the subjects, such as Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, were painted from life onto the large-scale canvas, but the majority of the sitters were first painted on small scale mahogany panels such as that used in the portrait of William West. The majority of these highly-prized sketches are now at the Yale University Art Gallery, and show Trumbull’s skill in capturing likenesses and character with fluidity and authority.

Emboldened, and having immersed himself in his studies and the numerous old masters available in England, he returned to America in 1789 confident of following in the footsteps of the likes of Copley as a leading American artist. Once again, however, Trumbull was unable to establish a reliable network of patronage, and the hoped-for riches from engravings of his Revolutionary pictures did not materialise. He resolved once more to return to Europe, this time in the employ of the American Government, for whom he was to work in London.

As a gift to his friend and former teacher, Trumbull took with him the present portrait of West’s elder brother, William, who he had painted in Philadelphia in 1793. William West, a cooper by trade who lived in Chester County, Pennsylvania, appears also to have been a noted and successful farmer. He owned several hundred acres in Pennsylvania and was, at the time this picture was painted, a member of the Pennsylvania Legislature. He had four children by his second wife Hannah Shaw, daughter of John and Hannah Passmore Shaw. Benjamin West wrote admiringly about the portrait to his brother, whom he had not seen for over thirty years: ‘Mr Trumbull is arrived in London with Mr. Jay, he has presented me with a small portrait of yourself; time has brought you a great resemblance of our father. I am very happy with the present.’ [July 27th, 1794, reproduced in ‘The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography’, Vol. XXXI 1908, no.1].

In 1800 Trumbull, by now married, returned to America, and finally found success as an established artist. For the next decade or so he became the pre-eminent portraitist in New York, and was elected director of the new American Academy of Fine Arts. In 1817 he was commissioned by the US Congress to install four of his monumental Revolutionary scenes in the Rotunda in the Capitol building. The commission probably marks the high-point of Trumbull’s career, and his choice of ‘The Declaration of Independence’, the ‘Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown’, the ‘Resignation of General Washington’, and the ‘Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga’ helped set the tone for American historical art. Thereafter Trumbull’s abilities began to decline, as did his reputation. He was deposed from the Academy after increasingly falling out with the new generation of American artist’s, who established a rival organisation. In 1831 he sold his remaining works to Yale University, on the condition that they be displayed in a gallery of his design. The Trumbull gallery has since been demolished, but Trumbull’s reputation has recovered: his pictures now form part of the established American iconography, and can be seen, for example, on the two and ten dollar bills.
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