I was recently asked by a new friend, a gentleman who I had been touring with for several days in Washington D.C., for a recommendation on additional sites to see.

He had one stipulation: Wherever I was going to recommend, he wanted to linger, to really take it all in, and make sure that he was redeeming his extra time in Washington.

The list of places we had visited the previous several days was exhaustive, and I was intrigued by his question because of a book review I had read just a few days earlier, a new biography I was planning to purchase and read.  Having now having read that new book, I am so pleased that my recommendation was worthy of our guest’s extra time in our national capital city.

I recommended that our Focus friends go the great rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Instead of hurrying through, pace yourselves and really look at the paintings that adorn the walls and dome. I especially recommend to look at my four favorite paintings in that majestic space, the paintings by the Revolutionary-era painter John Trumbull.

Trumbull’s style and color are unmissable and peerless in that elite grouping or artwork.

They include: “General George Washington Resigning His Commission” (1824); “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” (1819-1820); “Surrender of General Burgoyne” (1821); and my favorite painting in all of Washington, D.C., “Declaration of Independence” (1786-1820).

I have since read the single best biography ever written on Trumbull, Glorious Lessons: John Trumbull, Painter of the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 2024) by the famed American historian Richard Brookhiser. It is a true page-turner, and for anyone visiting Washington, D.C. this summer — or this year — it is a fabulous, entertaining read. Trumbull had a privileged and interesting life.

As Brookhiser says, “John Trumbull experienced the American Revolution firsthand – he served as an aide to George Washington and Horatio Gates, was shot at, and was jailed as a spy. He made it his mission to record the war, giving visual form to what most citizens of the new United States thought: that they had brought into the world a great and unprecedented political experiment. His purpose, he wrote, was ‘to preserve and diffuse the memory of the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves in the history of man.’  Although Trumbull’s contemporaries viewed him as a painter, Trumbull thought of himself as a historian.”

The historian and writer Richard Brookhiser has perfectly captured not only Trumbull’s painterly legacy and matchless achievement but also found a superb way to humanize and personalize for our time our most important artist of the American founding.

I relished and treasured the Trumbull biography so deeply that I decided to read Brookhiser’s two marvelous biographies of George Washington, Founding Father and Rediscovering George Washington.  I had read his biography of Abraham Lincoln when it first appeared a number of years ago, and the Washington biographies are worthy peers.

This new Trumbull biography is the kind of book that stays with you long after you have finished reading it; you come to see that our own concepts of what the founding era must have been like, and what is must have looked like, are in fact deeply and directly formed and related to Trumbull’s famous images. Learning about his magnificent story, which spans his growing up in New England and his visits to France to help perfect his art technique, makes for a fascinating and redeeming read.

If you and your family are coming to Washington, D.C. for vacation this summer, or perhaps later in the year, spend that extra time with John Trumbull and his paintings in the rotunda. His paintings will still be great and beautiful a hundred years and more from now and so will this biography. Trumbull has found the perfect biographer in Richard Brookhiser.

 

Image from Shutterstock.