John Trumbull (1756-1843) grew up in Connecticut wanting to be an artist. He even made drawings on the “the nicely sanded floors” of his house. (Housekeepers scattered clean sand on bare floors to soak up water brought in from outside, and to make walking on the boards softer and smoother.)
Unfortunately, young John was the son of the governor of Connecticut, who felt that his family was the sort that employed portrait painters, and did not produce them. John endured a Harvard education, relieved by one exciting visit to the Boston home of painter John Singleton Copley, and then looked ahead drearily to a career in business.
Luckily, a war broke out less than two years after he graduated in 1773. Trumbull’s autobiography describes how he obtained a a position working for the new American commander:
I was told by my eldest brother, the commissary general, that the commander in chief was very desirous of obtaining a correct plan of the enemy’s works, in front of our position on Boston neck; he advised me (as I could draw) to attempt to execute a view and plan, as a mean of introducing myself (probably) to the favorable notice of the general.Of course, Trumbull’s family connections probably didn’t hurt.
I took his advice and began the attempt, by creeping (under the concealment of high grass) so nigh that I could ascertain that the work consisted of a curtain crossing the entrance of the town, flanked by two bastions. . . .
My drawing was...shown to the general. . . . This (probably) led to my future promotion, for, soon after, I was presented to the general, and appointed his second aid-du-camp.
As it was, John Trumbull lasted only about three weeks as Gen. George Washington’s aide, working in the Vassall mansion in Cambridge. Then the general decided that, with the arrival of some colleagues from Virginia, he had more than enough young gentlemen working for him. Trumbull switched to the staff of Gen. Horatio Gates, and finally resigned as a colonel in 1777.
In 1780, still eager to become a professional artist, Trumbull sailed to London to study painting with Benjamin West. He didn’t seem to care that the war was still going on, but the British authorities did, and they locked him up on suspicion of being a spy. Trumbull eventually did get training, and became one of the U.S. of A.’s busiest history painters, his personal acquaintance with such men as Washington being a valuable asset. He was probably the finest one-eyed painter of his generation. One of Trumbull’s portraits of the generalissimo appears above, courtesy of the George Washington Papers site at the University of Virginia.