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A 1793 Miniature By Connecticut Artist John Trumbull Turns Up

History And Mystery


January 31, 2009

A lost miniature painting by Connecticut son and Revolutionary War-era painter John Trumbull has been found in southwest England, where it was mislabeled for generations.

A London art dealer bought the painting, ascribed to "Humbert," for less than 200 pounds ($280) last month. It turned out to be one of the many miniatures by Trumbull, best known for his rendering of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which is at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford. The image also is engraved on the back of the $2 bill.

The actual worth of the 4- by 3-inch portrait was put at 16,000 pounds, or more than $22,000, said Bendor Grosvenor, a researcher for London art dealer Philip Mould Ltd.

The 1793 portrait of Philadelphia lawyer William West turned up at what Grosvenor called "a very small country auction in Devon, in what in the States would be called an estate auction."

"Every now and then we get a lucky hit," he said. "This one happened to have a particularly good story with it."

Trumbull was born in 1756 in Lebanon, Conn., the son of Jonathan Trumbull, who was Connecticut's governor from 1769 to 1784.

John Trumbull began painting as a youth and continued sketching while a soldier in the Revolutionary War. In 1780, he began studying in London under Benjamin West, the Philadelphia-born artist who became president of the Royal Academy of Art. It was West who suggested that Trumbull paint small pictures of the Revolutionary War and miniature portraits.

In 1793, several year after Trumbull returned to the States, he painted a portrait of William West, the older brother of Benjamin West. The brothers hadn't seen each other for more than 30 years.

When Benjamin West was presented with the tiny painting in 1794, he wrote to his brother: "Time has brought you a great resemblance of our father. I am very happy with the present."

"People knew about the existence of the painting because of West's correspondence," Grosvenor said by phone from London. "But nobody had ever seen it before. We were lucky enough to get it quite reasonably."

Though Trumbull remains well-known for his portraits of Revolutionary-era patriots it was his portrait of Alexander Hamilton that was the source of the face on the $10 bill he was also famous for about 250 miniature portraits that he completed.

"They are painted on mahogany," Grosvenor said. "Once you know what they look like, it's quite easy to spot them."

The people who possessed the West portrait for years might have misread Trumbull's signature as "Humbert," Grosvenor said. The Philip Mould art dealership identified Trumbull's signature on the back of the painting, he said.

"We didn't see the back of the painting until it got here," Grosvenor said. "It was quite a nice surprise it said Trumbull on the back."

A number of Trumbull's works hang in the U.S. Capitol, including a version of "The Declaration of Independence," "Surrender of General Burgoyne," "Surrender at Yorktown" and "Washington Resigning His Commission."

Yale has one of the largest collections of his works. Trumbull sold a series of more than two dozen paintings and scores of miniatures to the university in 1831 for an annual payment of $1,000.

But he also has a strong connection with the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, where many of his large paintings hang. Daniel Wadsworth, the founder of the oldest public art museum in the country, was married to a niece of Trumbull, and the painter was a trusted adviser who introduced Wadsworth to a number of the Hudson River school artists.

The London gallery is entertaining bids on the West portrait, which has been promised for a spring exhibit in Philadelphia.

Said art dealer Mould: "To find a piece of lost American heritage in England is particularly exciting."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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