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American Paintings and Sculpture
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Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
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Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
Artist: Andrew Robertson, British, 1777–1845

Lieutenant John Trumbull Ray (born ca.1792)


Watercolor on ivory

3 3/16 × 2 1/2 in. (8.1 × 6.4 cm)
Gift of Maria Trumbull Dana
Andrew Robertson’s portrait of a handsome young British lieutenant posed against an opaquely rendered sky, painted in 1814 in England for an illustrious American client, is a harbinger of the new, bolder style of miniature introduced around that time. The gleaming, rich colors produce the effect of a tiny oil painting, designed to hang on the wall as part of a cluster of family images. In this instance, however, the secret behind Robertson’s portrait of a handsome young British lieutenant makes it difficult to imagine its owner displaying it where others might have been tempted to probe the sitter’s identity. Robertson’s miniature descended in the family of Colonel John Trumbull, the American artist and patriot who had served as an aide-de-camp to General Washington. After Trumbull’s death, the miniature was sold along with other personal effects as a portrait of a “British Officer,” an odd possession for a man with Trumbull’s political convictions. Correspondence revealed what Trumbull had kept hidden from his contemporaries: he had fathered an illegitimate son by Temperance Ray, a servant in his brother’s Connecticut home, some years before his own marriage. After years of neglect, Trumbull and his wife met his twelve-year-old son for the first time, but the boy, named John Trumbull Ray, was led to believe that his benefactors were his aunt and uncle. A few years later, the Trumbulls took Ray to England and placed him with a farmer for instruction in agriculture. But Ray had no interest in farming, and declared in a letter written on the eve of the war of 1812, “I thought the best way was to tell you honestly at once what I wish, that is to go into the [British] army.” The colonel sent this volley: “You have chosen, of all times, to enter the British Army at the moment when a war with America is almost inevitable: and when of course your entering the military service of this Country may be regarded … as an Act of Treason to your native Country.” Over time, the tension between “uncle” and “nephew” abated. When Ray was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1814, a proud Trumbull commissioned a miniature of the young man painted in his uniform and further ordered miniatures of himself and his wife as a gift for Ray. The exchange of miniatures between the generations legitimized their familial relationship through art. But some unspecified incident led the colonel to punish Ray by revoking the miniature of his “aunt.” In the story of Trumbull’s relationship with his illegitimate son, miniatures became emblems of acceptance and rejection. Trumbull and Ray quarreled bitterly when Ray married without consulting Trumbull first. Perceiving that Ray’s wife must have been pregnant when Ray married her, Trumbull, ironically, condemned his son’s behavior, and years of silence followed. Nonetheless, the colonel kept the portrait miniature of his son wearing the uniform of the British nation he himself had fought.
Made in London, England
Not on view
19th century

John Trumbull, until d. 1843; to his sister, Harriet Trumbull (Mrs. Benjamin Silliman); descended in her family until 1896; sold at auction with "The Very Important Col. John Trumbull Collection of Original Sketches and Studies," by Stan V. Henckels at Thos. Birch's Son's, Philadelphia, December 17, 1896, lot 362; to Maria Trumbull Dana, until 1938; to Yale University Art Gallery, by gift, 1938.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.