Home Arts and Leisure John Trumbull Ray, The Man in the Miniature Portrait

John Trumbull Ray, The Man in the Miniature Portrait

Connecticut artist John Trumbull’s only son and greatest secret

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The Yale University Art Gallery holds a striking portrait miniature, just 3 1/8 x 2 1⁄2 inches, of a British Army officer dressed in an elegant red uniform. Painted in 1814, it depicts a young Peninsular War veteran with curling dark hair and blue-gray eyes. His name was John Trumbull Ray.

Andrew Robertson’s 1814 portrait miniature of Lt. John Trumbull Ray

The Gallery also contains the tombs of two other people named “Trumbull”: John Trumbull and his wife, Sarah. John Trumbull was the youngest son of one of Connecticut’s first families. He was lauded as a “patriot, artist and friend of Washington—the father of American historical painting.”[1] Some of the most enduringly recognizable images of the Revolution and Founders come from Trumbull’s talented hand.

John Trumbull Ray, the soldier in the portrait, is John Trumbull’s illegitimate son. Commissioning the miniature may have been the closest he ever came to acknowledging it.

Housed within an institution his father helped establish, the miniature portrait of Lt. John Trumbull Ray sheds light on the two men’s lives and relationship. It also reveals larger issues of family, sex, status and class in late eighteenth–and early nineteenth-century New England.

John Trumbull, Patriot

Born in 1756 in Lebanon, Conn., John Trumbull was the youngest of Jonathan and Faith Trumbull’s six children. Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., served as colonial America’s only patriot governor. His merchant connections allowed him to provide badly needed supplies to the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Being “surrounded by patriots, to whose ardent conversations [he] listened daily,” John had big shoes to fill. [2]

John’s 1783 portrait of his parents, Governor Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. and his wife, Faith
Robinson Trumbull

John’s family connections eventually helped him rise to the rank of Washington’s aide-de-camp. He showed valor and intelligence as an officer. But his pride occasionally caused him to act rashly, especially when pricked. For example, in 1777, he furiously resigned his commission as deputy adjutant general. He did it because of a dispute over the date on which Congress had issued it. John’s hyper-sensitivity to honor and optics persisted throughout his life.

George Washington Before the Battle of Trenton (1792) by John Trumbull

John Trumbull, Artist

His resignation ensured he would never make his mark on American military history, but he became a powerful creative fixture of the Founding Era. John’s earliest memories included mimicking his older sisters’ sketches, paintings and embroidery, which their mother proudly displayed in the family parlor. “[F]or several years,” he later remembered, “the nicely sanded floors… were constantly scrawled with my rude attempts at drawing.”[3] John refined his skills despite a childhood accident that left him blind in one eye. Rather than take his father’s advice to study law, John pursued a career as a professional artist.

Governor Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. house, John Trumbull’s birthplace. Photo is the author’s.

John bloomed in the postwar years. Under Benjamin West’s tutelage in England, he declared that “the great object of my wishes…is to take up the History of Our Country, and paint the principal Events particularly of the late War.”[4] Embarking on a grand rendering of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John spent four years traveling New England to paint thirty-six of the Founders from life. Between trips, he stayed with his brother, Jonathan, Jr., in Lebanon. There, as he later confessed to a friend, “an accident befel [sic] me, to which young Men are often exposed.”[5]

Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, first begun in 1786 and completed in 1820

“Having committed the Folly, and acquired the name of Father…”

Temperance Ray was born in Haddam, Conn., on April 16, 1766 to Jeremiah and Mehitable Ray.[6] When and under what circumstances Temperance began working as a servant in the Trumbull household is unknown. But she and John began a sexual relationship in 1791. She was 24; he was 10 years older.

John’s older brother, Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. alongside his wife, Eunice Backus Trumbull, and
daughter, Faith Trumbull. John painted this portrait in roughly 1777.

Temperance gave birth to a son in 1792. From the start, Trumbull shirked parental responsibility. He protested that “the number of Fellow labourers rendered it a little difficult to ascertain precisely who was the Father.” [7] Temperance named her son John Trumbull Ray, a namesake—John insisted—meant to pressure the rich, powerful Trumbull family to support the child.

By the 1790s, fornication cases like Temperance’s were quite rare. Decades earlier, they had comprised the largest category of criminal cases in Connecticut.[8] This sharp decline stemmed from a shift away from Puritan legal and cultural standards across New England.

The Jonathan Trumbull, Jr. House in Lebanon, Conn., today. This is where John and
Temperance’s affair presumably took place. Photo is the author’s.

Gone were the days where the virtue of humility demanded men and women share equal blame in fornication cases. As author Cornelia Hughes Dayton argues, the turn of the nineteenth century saw the rise of a double standard. It cast women’s testimonies as dubious evidence, allowing men to employ legal tactics to sidestep accountability.[9] Temperance braved the sting of public scrutiny when she brought a paternity suit against Trumbull. The child’s out-of-wedlock birth was no longer punishable by branding or whipping, but she had a roughly one in four chance of successfully suing for child support.[10] Despite the odds, she won.

After submitting to court-ordered child support payments, Trumbull returned to England in 1794 to paint. He also began a foray as a diplomat with the Jay Commission. He did not breathe a word about his child to a soul—until Sarah.

Sarah Hope Harvey, Mystery and Muse

Trumbull’s choice of bride is one of the most enduring mysteries of his life. Though he painted the beautiful Sarah Hope Harvey 12 times, little survives about her, and historians have not been kind. Rumors and gossip abounded that she was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman and prone to drunken outbursts. None of her letters survive to help solve the puzzle. Trumbull’s cryptic remark to a friend that he “had married… to atone for a sin” is enough to keep the mystery swirling.[11]

Sarah Trumbull with a Spaniel (1802) by John Trumbull

When he proposed marriage in 1799, Trumbull confessed the truth about Temperance and John Trumbull Ray. Sarah countered that she would accept if Trumbull took responsibility for his son’s education.

Trumbull acted right away, dashing off a full confession to his old friend, James Wadsworth, and asking him to locate Temperance and the boy. “It is bad enough to be called the Father of a Child whose Mother is little worth,” Trumbull wrote caustically, “but, to be called the Father of a worthless[,] illiterate[,] profligate wretch (as He may prove, if left uneducated) is a disgrace… when it may be avoided with a little Care and Expense.”[12]

John Trumbull Ray

Wadsworth’s search lasted two years. He finally drafted a report in February 1801, explaining how Temperance had left Lebanon, married a sailor, and borne several more children. Her son—called Jack—was indentured to a farmer named David Smith in upstate New York.[13] The boy was bright, curious and energetic. With his dark hair, narrow nose and sharp chin, Wadsworth was struck by how distinctly he resembled his namesake.

Self Portrait (1802) by John Trumbull

John and Sarah Trumbull were married in 1800, evidently without the blessing of the Trumbull family. They briefly returned to the States and were mortified by the Trumbulls’ chilly reception. Worse, a polarizing political climate made Trumbull’s historical paintings unpopular in America, and tenuous relations with Great Britain under the Jefferson administration forecasted war. Seeking refuge from these familial and diplomatic tensions, the couple again crossed the Atlantic on a British packet ship called the Chesterfield in December 1808. This time, 17-year-old Jack Ray accompanied them.

John and Sarah first met Ray in 1804, when he was living with a Reverend Mitchell in Canaan, Conn. They introduced themselves as his uncle and aunt. From the start, the issue of Jack’s future caused friction between father and son. Trumbull packed Ray off to the tiny hamlet of Northampton, 300 miles from London, first to “acquire a knowledge of farming.” Then, when Ray balked at that prospect, he sent him to learn cheesemaking.[14] Neither profession stuck. As Theodore Sizer explains, “Young Ray, like his father, had martial blood in his veins.”[15] He craved adventure, freedom, and to see more of the world. A career in the military seemed to be the perfect outlet.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (1820) by John Trumbull

Hardship and War

Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Portugal, Great Britain’s centuries-old ally, sparked the Peninsular War in 1808. With the British economy pinched by French and American embargoes and the political climate tenuous at best, Trumbull’s commissions shriveled to a few sparce portraits. He wrote, “I was thus placed under the necessity of borrowing, and was constantly drifting upon the fatal lee-shore of debt.”[16]

Ray chose this inopportune moment to announce his desire to join the British Army. Trumbull fired back with ferocity. Not only was an officer’s commission expensive and his wages meager, but Ray had “cho[sen], of all times, to enter the British Army at the moment when a war with America is almost inevitable: and… may be regarded, & perhaps justly as an Act of Treason.”[17] Emphasizing themes of good citizenship of patriotism, Trumbull reminded his son, “America, for all her follies & vices, is still my country & yours.”[18]

Ray ignored his father’s advice, joined the Army, and departed for Portugal and Spain. He fought under Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and was wounded first during the Siege of Badajoz and, later, at the Battle of Salamanca. He rose through the ranks quickly, and not only because of his own accomplishments. Though embittered by his son’s defiance, Trumbull used his social and political connections to secretly assist Ray where he could.

Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.’s illustration (1927) of the Battle of Salamanca, where
John Trumbull Ray was wounded.

In 1814, Ray earned the rank of lieutenant, which stirred Trumbull’s paternal pride. He commissioned a portrait miniature from British artist Andrew Robertson. Miniatures were incredibly popular at the turn of the nineteenth century. Their “intimate” size allowed the wearer to keep the image of a loved one “close at heart.”[19] Moreover, as author and curator Robin Jaffe Frank explains, “An exchange of miniatures between generations in essence legitimized their family relationships through art.”[20] The portrait commission was perhaps the most significant, intentional gesture ever shared between father and son.

Time and Distance

Socially isolated and in debt, John and Sarah Trumbull scrambled to escape England as the Peninsular War and War of 1812 raged. Departure for New York was impossible until peace was brokered in 1815. During these challenging years, they had periodically lent Ray money to supplement his military wages. He persisted in requesting more, which Trumbull resented. He took Ray’s portrait miniature when he and Sarah left England, deciding to withhold it “until [we have] reason to believe that you know how to value it.”[21] Ray, meanwhile, remained in England.

“The Wholesome Severity of a Real Friend”

Spotty letters punctuated Trumbull and Ray’s stalemate. Two years after the Trumbulls returned to New York, Congress commissioned four of John’s Revolutionary War paintings for the U.S. Capitol, including a 12 x 18 ft. enlarged copy of Declaration of Independence. John had been working on the original when his son was born.

The U.S. Capitol Rotunda today; two of Trumbull’s four total portraits within the space are
visible at center and on the right.

His letter was a landmark piece of correspondence for two reasons: He announced that he had married, and he addressed Trumbull, for the first time, as Father.

The tone of Trumbull’s letters to Ray were often harsh, but one dated October 20, 1817 is particularly stinging. Always one to wear his heart on his sleeve, Trumbull did not temper his critical (and hypocritical) opinions on Ray’s marriage and the subsequent birth of his first child six months later.

Emphasizing themes of money, responsibility, and codependency, Trumbull criticized Ray for his inability to provide for a wife and child on his military half-pay. Then, Trumbull addressed Ray’s parentage. After being stuck with the paternity suit, Trumbull explained, he had financially supported Ray in many ways:

Your Aunt & I took care of your early years and gave you a useful education: You possess Youth, Health, Strength, & a considerable knowledge of Farming, and of Military & Naval affairs; — these are precious advantages, Ray… [I]t cost me[,] to take you to England, & to give you the agricultural education which you have utterly neglected & thrown away, more than Five hundred guineas: —you have despised my advice, and you now feel the consequences…[22]

“It Is With Shame For My Long Silence That I Attempt to Address You Again”

Given the tone of Trumbull’s letter, one might understand the five-year silence that followed. Meanwhile, Trumbull became president of New York’s Academy of Fine Arts. Under his nearly 20-year tenure, John put the cultural institution on the map, but his old stubbornness and pride enflamed a growing sense of acrimony between the Academy’s conservative leaders, who favored classical styles of art, and a new generation of students who gravitated to romantic styles.

Alexander Hamilton (1806) by John Trumbull

Trumbull still worried over his son’s welfare. When negotiating the sale of several of his paintings to the Academy—a deal that eventually backfired—he proposed that an annual sum of $700 be paid “for the lifetime of himself, Sarah, and John Ray.”[23]

The estrangement weighed equally heavily on Ray’s mind. When he finally wrote to Trumbull in 1823, it was with the “hope [that] the difference which has existed between us… you will compute as folly & heat of youth; I now see my folly; … I sincearly [sic] wish that all animosity between us were buried in oblivion.”[24] Despite his contrite heart, Ray never rekindled a regular correspondence with his father.

An Inheritance for John Trumbull Ray

Ray’s final letter, dated 1829, did not contain good news. His wife was sick, his military career had stalled and he struggled to find work. Ray refused to leave England and likely died there, though his death date is difficult to determine.

He was still living when Trumbull amended his will in January 1842. An 1808 draft of Trumbull’s will suggests his intent to leave Ray 150 acres of land. But mention of his son is relegated to a single sentence in the final version.[25] Trumbull did bequeath him the portrait miniature—and only the portrait miniature. Ray never claimed it.[26]

After years of turmoil and conflict, was this gift a snub or an olive branch? On one hand, Trumbull withheld land that might have given his son a fresh start in America. On another, while Ray did not receive a legitimate son’s inheritance, the gesture may find greater meaning within the cultural significance of portrait miniature exchanges. The socially conscious, insecure and ever-proud John Trumbull could not have stomached the shame of publicly acknowledging his son. Was the portrait meant as a final, albeit private, gesture of pride and affection?

The Yale Art Gallery

Housed within the Yale Art Gallery’s archives, the portrait survives as a testament to a tumultuous relationship between a father, whose artistic career defined a decisive era of American history, and his only son, whose life remains largely shrouded.

Emily Parrow grew up four miles from John Trumbull’s birthplace in Lebanon, Conn. She earned her M.A. in History from Liberty University in 2021 and wrote her thesis on nineteenth century Newport, Rhode Island. She currently serves as the Development and Membership Manager at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home, in Lenox, Mass. 

Images: Lt. John Trumbull Ray Yale University Art Gallery: https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/35108


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