John Trumbull and Bunker Hill

Tuesday, February 25, AD 2014

“These fellows say we won’t fight! By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!”

Major General Joseph Warren to his men prior to the battle of Bunker’s Hill

 

A lecture by John Walsh, emeritus director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, on John Trumbull’s painting on the battle of Bunker Hill and its historical accuracy, or lack thereof.  The painting has always been a favorite in my household, as it depicts my ancestor Major Andrew McClary of the New Hampshire militia.

Bunker Hill

Trumbull had witnessed the battle through field glasses, he was serving with the American army, although not with the portion fighting on Breed’s hill.  The painting shows the death of General Warren, and is entitled The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775,  the painting having been commissioned by Warren’s family.  Trumbull squeezes into the painting almost everyone famous who fought in the battle, both Americans and British.  Major Andrew McClary is shown raising his musket to brain a British soldier attempting to bayonet the dying Warren, a warlike action quite in character for him, and one which warms the cockles of my heart.  My wife has noted over the years how much I resemble Major Andrew and it is intriguing how his facial features have been passed down through the generations of my family.

The scene depicted is not historical, but rather a tribute to General Warren by having his death the center of the action.  To us it seems a very romantic version of the grim reality, but Abigail Adams, who heard the battle from her farm and saw the aftermath of the wounded and dead American soldiers, found it so realistic when she saw it that she shivered with the memories of the fight it aroused in her.  To most of us moderns war is simple butchery and unless it is shown as such, we are almost offended.  To the men and women of Abigail Adams’ generation, at least the Patriots, they would have been offended by a painting that only remembered the death and carnage, they needed few reminders of that, but that ignored the heroism and sacrifice that ultimately prevailed against the odds and established a new nation.

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One Response to John Trumbull and Bunker Hill

  • “My wife has noted over the years how much I resemble Major Andrew and it is intriguing how his facial features have been passed down through the generations of my family.”
    .
    Most heartily agree. I thought the same thing when I saw the painting, even before I read the above words, having seen your face and that of your son, Larry, in earlier posts, the McClareys resemble their ancestors in courage and patriotism.

John Trumbull: Painting the Revolution

Tuesday, May 24, AD 2011

In an age before photography, America was fortunate to have a painter of the skill of John Trumbull to give us a visual narrative of those stirring days and portraits of so many of the participants.  A veteran of the American Revolution, serving as an aide to George Washington and deputy adjutant general to Horation Gates, Trumbull painted with one eye, having lost sight in the other as a result of a childhood accident.

Some of the more notable paintings of Trumbull are:

Trumbull allowed future generations of Americans to visualize these scenes of the birth of their nation.  Of course, the man was not without his critics:

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4 Responses to John Trumbull: Painting the Revolution

  • Thank you Kurt. The clip from the John Adams’ miniseries is my favorite from the whole series. It skillfully combines both humor and melancholy and conveys the hard, perhaps impossible, task of every truly understanding a vast historical event like the American Revolution unless one lived through it.

  • The miniseries was fantastic. I watched it all.

    And I walk by the Trumbull painting frequently. It is impossible not to pause and reflect on it, even if it be ahistorical.

  • The advantage of a great painting is that even if it is ahistorical it can convey an underlying truth about an event depicted, in a similar manner to the way in which a great historical novel, Gironella’s trilogy on the Spanish Civil War for example, can convey the passion and fervor of a period of history missing from a dry chronicle of events.