Ariane de Gennaro
What would you say if I told you there was a dead guy buried under the Yale University Art Gallery? Well, much to my dismay, there creepily is, and this man was purposefully buried under the gallery, commonly known as the YUAG, along with his artwork. And his name is John Trumbull.
When I asked Sam Bezilla ’24, a student worker at the YUAG, what he thought about John Trumbull’s burial under the gallery, he said, “I always thought it was weird, but he also is very much bound up with the mythos of the art gallery and its founding. It just seems like one of those weird things associated with classic Yale lore. I feel like there’s probably a dead person buried under all of our buildings.”
Funnily enough, this is not the same John Trumbull that the beloved Trumbull College is named after — that would be his father Jonathan Trumbull, the Connecticut governor during the American Revolution. Both men cemented their own fame, though — Jonathan Trumbull as the only colonial governor to support the American Revolution and John Trumbull as the man to artistically tell the story of the Revolution.
It might not seem all that surprising that the YUAG houses Trumbull’s artwork, considering both who Trumbull’s father was and the national influence that Yale holds. But why is he buried there along with his wife beneath the art gallery? Was Grove Street Cemetery not good enough for him? And how did these prominent paintings of American history end up in the YUAG? To find this out and get a little more insight into John Trumbull’s life, I visited the YUAG and interviewed Mark Mitchell, the curator of American paintings and sculpture. What I discovered was partly an unsolved mystery and partly a profile of an American artist that I never expected to be such a rollercoaster.
If you’ve been to the YUAG, I would hope you’ve seen some of John Trumbull’s artwork. And if you haven’t, you clearly did not delve deep enough into the gallery. Regardless, it’s almost a given that every student in the United States has seen at least a picture of a Trumbull painting in a history textbook. Having lived through the American Revolution arguably gave Trumbull the charge to record its most important moments on canvas. Yet, he was not just alive during the revolutionary era. He witnessed the war himself. Mitchell stated that the reason why his most eminent set of historical paintings is so famous “is not only because the images proved to be so indelible, but also because he was an eyewitness.”
During the Revolution, Trumbull served in Boston, where he observed the infamous Battle of Bunker Hill firsthand. He also had the advantage of knowing several of the Revolution’s leading figures — such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — which lent intimacy to his art. Who better to paint the scene than a man who was on the scene himself? Because of Trumbull’s status as a witness, Mitchell argued that Trumbull had “a degree of authority [over] the whole project.”
But Trumbull first had to become a renowned American artist in order to take on such a lofty task. In 1780, Trumbull went to London to study with the already famous history and portrait painter Benjamin West, a Pennsylvanian who was, in fact, the court painter to King George III. It’s therefore not a surprise that at this time, many young American painters were going to London to study with West. However, because of the ongoing conflict between the British and their American colonists, you can imagine that Trumbull’s fervently American art was not the most appreciated by the crown. Consequently, he was thrown into the Tower of London, becoming a prisoner during the American Revolution: the British believed him to be a spy.
His imprisonment seemed to work out in his favor, since he — once released some months later — was given a late commission as a colonel, receiving most of the recognition and standing he desired. The rest, by virtue of his artistry, was still to come.
After the Revolution, there remained an elephant in the room — who would record what happened? Who would tell the story of the American Revolution with both heart and truth? West was the obvious answer to this question, given his American roots and artistic fame; he therefore began to communicate with artists in the United States to conduct proper research. He requested uniforms and other materials from the Revolution so that he could maintain a high degree of accuracy in his paintings. There was a major complication, though: in the process of completing this research, it occurred to West that he was unable to be the author of this story. As the King’s painter, depicting the American victory in all its glory was simply something he could not do while still maintaining his loyalties.
And so, the story of the famous set of Trumbull paintings began. Benjamin West, a loyalist at the time, turned to his student John Trumbull, a man singularly qualified to take on the task of depicting the story of the American Revolution, having witnessed battles and known many of the men involved. Consequently, Trumbull conceptualized his famous series of paintings. To start, in 1786, Trumbull went to Paris to visit Thomas Jefferson, who helped initiate the iconic painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In broadly summarizing what Jefferson said to Trumbull, Mitchell stated, “It’s all well and good to paint these great battles and moments of the Revolution, but what distinguishes the American enterprise is the Declaration [of Independence], is the voice of the people.” Jefferson sketched the “room where it happened” on a sheet of paper from memory, which ended up being Trumbull’s sole source for the sense of space in the painting. In fact, Trumbull began sketching the beginnings of this piece on the exact sheet of paper that Jefferson gave him.
Mitchell praised the work of art: “It becomes … one of these major … moments of artists representing a historical moment in a way that fixes it in the popular imagination.”
Trumbull continued to work on the Declaration of Independence painting for decades, solely because he spent so much time gathering the portraits of the 48 figures in the painting. Tracking people down in that day and age must have been very difficult, to say the least. In some cases, he had to use people’s sons and other family members to gauge what their figures looked like. He traveled around with his Declaration of Independence work, painting everyone that he could from real life, capturing people like Jefferson, Adams and Franklin in person.
During the interview, Mitchell said that “one of the amazing things about the painting is [that] it’s a synthesis of the entire unfolding of the negotiation of the Continental Congress, and so it’s more like a sort of class picture. Most of these people were no longer present by the time of the actual submission of the draft, but their contributions [were] recorded by Trumbull in this synthesis.”
Trumbull began and finished many of his conceived paintings, such as the one depicting the Battle of Bunker Hill, but he did not complete all of the works he originally imagined. His work on this series persisted through the mid-1790s, but due to the complete lack of interest by the American people, he eventually gave up. This particular fact struck me as quite counterintuitive — wouldn’t the American people feel even more fervor towards their newly formed country? Apparently not, as during the post-war period, the United States was completely drained of money, and therefore drained of any and all interest in memorializing the conflict that caused that downturn itself. Trumbull thought that he was going to finally secure fame as an artist, that he was creating a set of paintings people would “celebrate and be really grateful for.” Instead, he was only really able to market his art to a French audience, who appreciated his work on the Siege of Quebec.
Interestingly enough, the size of Trumbull’s paintings was atypical for similar grandiose works of history, which Mitchell called “public objects,” fit for the courts of kings. Trumbull’s paintings were instead much smaller, specifically as small as the largest available size of an engraving plate. This way, he could incrementally accumulate large amounts of money by selling the prints — reproductions made by an engraver — of larger paintings, something that Benjamin West did with his art. In the end, because of this strategic move, Trumbull would later find some artistic fame.
But first, he abandoned his series of paintings, succumbing to the disinterest of the American public for almost twenty years and becoming a diplomat through the War of 1812. Trumbull didn’t return to his art until after Aug. 24, 1814 — the day the British burned down the U.S. Capitol. The United States had to completely rebuild the structure after the devastating fire, and they decided to enhance the rotunda with a series of history paintings, for which they turned to John Trumbull. Four of his pieces — two of which were new, large-scale remakes of his prior depictions of the Declaration and the Battle of Bunker Hill — were hung in the rotunda of the Capitol building. These enormous twelve by eighteen-feet frames still hang there to this day.
And so, Trumbull began to paint again, continuing his series through the 1820s and relying on the fact that there must have been a “resurgence … of patriotic interest.” Unfortunately, Trumbull was wrong. For almost 20 years, he led the American Academy of Fine Arts in New York, which he hoped would be of the same caliber as the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Much to his dismay, he was incorrect again. And worse yet, he had no institution in which he could display his art, which leads us back to Yale University.
Throughout the decade, Trumbull toured his paintings around the United States, charging people a small fee to either look at or sell prints. He earned a sizable monetary accumulation from these efforts, but at this point, Trumbull was still not renowned as the “lavish” artist he had hoped he’d be. Then, in 1831, Benjamin Silliman, who was both a professor at Yale and the nephew-in-law of John Trumbull, asked the artist what the fate of his paintings would be. Inspired by this conversation, Trumbull decided to donate his paintings to Yale. In exchange, Yale offered to build a museum on Old Campus specifically for his art — one that Trumbull could design himself — and to pay him an annuity. In his will, Trumbull asked to be interred under his work in the museum, where he resided after his death in 1843.
In trying to discover a little bit more about Trumbull’s burial, I checked a book out of the Haas Arts Library Special Collections — per the recommendation of Professor Jay Gitlin — called “The Reinterments of Colonel Trumbull” by Theodore Sizer from the Walpole Society Note Book (Portland, Maine: The Anthoensen Press, 1948).
A quotation from Benjamin Sillman perfectly captures the lorish feeling that Bezilla expressed about John Trumbull’s reinterment: “[Trumbull] said to me one day when we were in the Gallery, ‘It is my wish to be interred beneath this Gallery… these are my children — those whom they represent have all gone before me, let me be buried with my family. … Let the tomb then be finally closed not to be opened again until earth and sea shall give up their dead,’” according to Sizer. The drama in his request to build a tomb for the remains of him and his wife is tangible.
Both Trumbull and his paintings were housed in the gallery from 1832 until 1866, at which point the museum was turned into an office building. In 1866, Street Hall — the art gallery’s new building — opened. During spring recess so as to not attract crowds, all of Trumbull’s paintings were moved to the new location and his body was reinterred under the nascent structure as per his request. However, it wasn’t as easy as digging the couple up and moving them. For a long while that day, excavation teams could not seem to find the bodies; eventually, after ripping up the basement floor, the crypt was found.
At this point, Trumbull’s wife had been buried three times, having died before Trumbull, she was originally buried in New York. When undertakers lifted her coffin, the “bottom gave way,” and they had to put her remains in a new one, Sizer said. Trumbull had been twice buried, so his coffin was “in a perfect state of preservation.”
In the late 1920s, the YUAG added another building: if you walk through the ancient gallery, you can see a cenotaph on the ground marking where Trumbull was reburied for the second time. A third structure was added in the 1950s, as part of the gallery’s ever-expanding renovations, at which point Trumbull was supposedly moved back into the space he originally occupied in Street Hall.
As a believer that “teaching from the original works of art was the most instructive form of experience,” Trumbull taught as a professor at Yale University using his own paintings. Mitchell also held that “Trumbull remains a sort of inspiring figure for the institution and kind of created it as we know it.”
Despite all of this information that I uncovered about John Trumbull and how his paintings found their home in the YUAG, I was still unable to figure out where exactly Trumbull is buried under the gallery. Considering he was reinterred so many times, this is not necessarily surprising. And so, the mystery remains. No pun intended.