Late in life, artist Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860) embarked on a mission to introduce a new generation to George Washington, a person he felt a certain affinity with since they shared a February 22 birthday, albeit 46 years apart. Washington certainly loomed large throughout Peale’s long, productive career as a frequent subject of his numerous original works and of copies of portraits by other artists, a common practice for earning additional revenue streams. By the late 1850s, Peale, the last remaining artist who painted Washington from life, traveled the lecture circuit with his talk “Washington and His Portraits.” The lecture stands as a unique primary source for details and reminiscences of the Founding Father and the artists who painted him.¹
Early in his talk, Peale provided a description of Washington: “six feet one inch in height – in his boots, six feet two – His weight about two hundred & twenty pounds – his complexion was florid – Eyes of the deepest blue – and hair a dark brown.” Yet more importantly, he was interested in whether the subject’s personality and character shone through in the portraits. Using his copies of a number of paintings, Peale offered his opinions on their successes and failures. Did he believe that any artist captured the full essence of George Washington during the many stages of his life—soldier, statesman, president?
George Washington sat for his first portrait in 1772 for Rembrandt’s father, Charles Willson Peale, the only painter he used for nearly 20 years. Seven years later, the elder Peale painted the first full-length portrait of Washington, which depicted the 1777 victory against the British at Princeton, as a commission for the Pennsylvania State House. The artist, capitalizing on the hero’s popularity even abroad, sent one of his many copies to Benjamin West in London who handed it over to others to be engraved for sale on the lucrative secondary market. The resulting print, readily available to more households than any painting, shows many modifications in Washington’s face, figure, and positioning. Commenting on these two paintings by his father, Rembrandt Peale noted that they “represent him with short neck & broad, sloping shoulders” and “sometimes wanting energy of expression, with noses & eyes defectively small, ” but still depicted a “majestic” figure.
By 1790 Charles Willson Peale’s monopoly ended as the growing demand for images of the newly elected first president of the nation created opportunities for many more artists. One new artist, John Trumbull, had served as Washington’s aide-de-camp in the early years of the Revolution. With his first-hand knowledge of his subject as a soldier, Trumbull chose to commemorate the 1782 review of the French troops at Verplanck’s Point in New York and later adapted this into a full-length copy for New York City Hall.
Trumbull again modified this painting two years later, maintaining Washington’s “heroic military character” in an earlier moment at Trenton after crossing the Delaware River in 1776. Instead of responding to Trumbull’s intended noble representation of Washington, Peale found the latter work exuded a “graceful elegance” but wanting “the peculiar dignity of Washington” and stated that although the artist preferred this one, he found the earlier work a better likeness.
In his recollection of the autumn of 1795, Rembrandt Peale described both he and Gilbert Stuart simultaneously painting Washington for their first time, with Washington unable to return the following day for a second sitting with him as he had already promised to sit for Stuart that day. While this portrait was Peale’s only one done from life, Stuart was granted sittings for more portraits soon after. Peale correctly noted that Stuart’s second portrait became the standard one, later reproduced on America’s one-dollar bill. Stuart found his sitter “difficult to engage in conversation,” unaware of the cause until later—a new set of teeth that made speaking painful. Stuart was dissatisfied with his first portrait, whereas Peale considered it better in the lower portion of the face than the second one for the same reason.
How successful were artists in capturing Washington? According to Rembrandt Peale, Washington’s “family & Friends lamented that they possessed no Portrait of him which they considered entirely satisfactory.” Peale agreed, although admitted that each “possessed some peculiar merit.” He himself struggled to create a worthy portrait, but was finally convinced he had achieved success with his 17th painting of Washington, Patriæ Pater (1823–24), now owned by the U.S. Senate.
Despite various deficiencies, interpretations, and distortions evident in all the arts works portraying George Washington, the works themselves and the sheer number and ubiquity of them have forever embedded George Washington in our minds as the Father of our Country.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library
Howard, Hugh. The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 2009.
Staiti, Paul. Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 2016.
¹Variants of this lecture exist in other repositories. The copy in Winterthur Library’s Peale Family Papers (Collection 396) is the basis for quotes and information in this post.