Trumbull, John

Lebanon, CT 1756 - New York 1843
Biography & List of works

Portrait of Captain Samuel Blodget in Rifle Dress, 1786

Portrait of Captain Samuel Blodget in Rifle Dress, 1786


Medium: Oil On Canvas

Size: 53 x 43 cm

John Trumbull’ s activities as the portraitist of the American Revolution are well documented. Under the encouragement of Thomas Jefferson, Trumbull set out to record the major events of the struggle for independence in the form of history paintings, rendering inspiring moments as modern events rather than through a scheme of classical allegory.

Trumbull sought out all of the players in the dramatic historical, political and military events of this turbulent moment. His drawings and portrait miniatures became the basis for figures included in both individual portraits and large historical compositions. A drawing by Trumbull of Captain Blodget, probably executed in London in 1786, may have been intended for inclusion in his composition The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton .Although the final version of this painting does not include Blodget, this drawing also provides an interesting counterpoint to the recently re-discovered full-length Portrait of Captain Samuel Blodget in Rifle Dress. This portrait of Blodget is documented by an entry in Trumbull’s Account of Paintings, II, no. 29, and has long been thought to have been destroyed. In contrast to the drawing which shows Blodget half-length in full dress uniform, his hair blowing freely, the oil portrait shows Blodget as a man of action. This was possibly the sitter’s choice as Blodget had already retired from the army and become a merchant in the East India Trade. Trumbull has painted Blodget full-length, but on the same scale as the figures in the history paintings he was producing at this time. The landscape, with a view to a distant encampment and two small figures in the middle distance (left center), is also more elaborate than in any other but his grandest scale, full-length portraits. This work may be included more readily among his history paintings than numbered among his portraits, most of which, at this time, were produced as bust length miniatures no more than four inches high. Blodget’s pose in Rifle dress, painted almost a decade after he had resigned his commission, was evidently intended to commemorate the military service of this talented man whose own career, with its early triumphs and subsequent disappointments, in some ways resembled Trumbull’s own.

But Blodget’s importance to the establishment of the new nation goes well beyond his Revolutionary War service. Samuel Blodget was born in Goffstown, New Hampshire, on August 28, 1757, the son of Samuel and Hannah Blodget. With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he joined the New Hampshire Militia, of which he was appointed a Captain. He served for the first 17 months, resigning in December 1777. Better suited to commerce than a military career, he moved to Boston where he quickly made a fortune in the East India trade. By 1790, he had moved to Philadelphia where, in 1792, he became a director of The Insurance Company of North America. In the same year he married Rebecca Smith, daughter of William Smith, provost of the University of Pennsylvania.

Blodget was a man of singular talents and had a special enthusiasm and a remarkable talent for architecture. He was responsible for the design of the First Bank of the United States in Philadephia. Completed in 1795, it was the first in the United States to have a marble façade. It remains the oldest bank building in the United States and, with its pillared portico, is also probably America’s oldest surviving neoclassical public building. Blodget’s design was based on Thomas Cooley’s Exchange in Dublin, which he could have seen either through engravings or, perhaps, on an earlier trip abroad.

In 1792, Blodget became interested in the new Federal Capitol and began acquiring Washington real estate. He promoted the construction of suitably grand government buildings and helped raise funds for their construction. While in Boston to secure a loan for the erection of Federal buildings, he learned of the competition for the design of the Capitol building through a newspaper advertisement of March 1792. He submitted a plan for a domed structure with four Corinthian porticoes, modeled on the Maison Carrée in Nîmes. Blodget’s submission missed the closing deadline for the competition but he was, nonetheless, asked by the Commissioners of the Federal City to submit complete drawings. His drawings do not survive. In the following year, the Commissioners appointed him Superintendent of Buildings, the active representative of the Commissioners in the fledgling city. This position was subsequently abolished and Blodget was forced to use his own financial resources in planning the new buildings. Hoping to raise money from the public, he attempted to run lotteries for the sale of Washington real estate for which he put up his own property as security for the payment of prizes. The failure of this plan led to his bankruptcy and imprisonment for debt. While still in jail, he solicited funds for a national university and, when he was released, this project became his main interest. At the time of his death in 1814, he left a fund of $7,000 for this purpose.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Blodget, like Trumbull, came from a family that could claim to be established among the American gentry. Furthermore, both men, born just fourteen months apart, served as officers in the Revolutionary War but resigned early on to embark on new careers. Both were multi-talented, with Blodget’s enthusiasm leading towards architecture, a gentlemanly pursuit in which he briefly shined, while Trumbull had a powerful impact on the development of American painting. Trumbull’s own artistic career, though of long duration, was filled with many trials and tribulations. Both men were inspired by the idea of the great federal Capital, the greatest individual architectural project ever embarked upon by the United States. While Trumbull’s contribution to this project may be admired today by every visitor, Blodget’s own designs for this building are shrouded in mystery. The relationship between Blodget, a visionary who dreamed of a federal city worthy of a great new nation, and Trumbull, whose campaign to ornament that city’s dominating monument extended over many decades, is revealed and made vivid by the discovery of this long-lost painting.

This picture was considered for acquisition by the United States Capitol at the turn of the century, but was returned to the owner and was subsequently presumed lost. It reemerged in a private collection in England in the late 1980s with a history of family ownership.