Sitting still for the paparazzi

One of the unrivaled joys traveling the country has been not only visiting the national and historical parks run by the National Park Service, but also talking with the excellent park rangers. With very few exceptions they have been incredibly enthusiastic and generous in sharing their passion and mastery of their chosen historical and natural subjects.

George Washington, Wright-Trumbull portrait, Monticello

Monticello’s Wright-Trumbull portrait of Washington, 1786

George Washington, Jean-Antoine Houdon

Washington, by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1786

I was reminded of this again a few days ago visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (which is run not by the park service but by a private foundation). Seeing the Joseph Wright portrait and Jean-Antoine Houdon bust* of George Washington at Monticello reminded me how much fun it was talking with ranger Bill Troppman, at Valley Forge National Historical Park. He’s an historian and a non-stop talker on the events at Valley Forge and the soldiers who struggled there in the winter of 1777-78. But he was especially passionate about his interest in the artists who painted George Washington, leaping out of his seat when he got going. So I kind of warmed to the subject.

When we had this conversation, Bruce and I had just visited the Portrait Gallery in the grand old Second Bank of the U.S. in Philadelphia. The museum has a pretty comprehensive showing of portraits of heroes of the American Revolution—it’s so fascinating to see what these people you read about looked like.

George Washington at Princeton, Charles Willson Peale

George Washington at Princeton, Charles Willson Peale, 1779

Today a celebrity wouldn’t sit still for the paparazzi, but in 1790 you had to. George Washington was his generations’ most popular portrait subject, so if you were making a living as an artist, you wanted to sell pictures of him. And Washington knew that to build his place in popular imagination and posterity, he had to help get his picture out there. But he only had so much time and patience to sit for his portrait. So artists all made multiple copies their own works, and each other’s.

The Washington portrait at Monticello was commissioned by Jefferson in Philadelphia before he left for Paris. Joseph Wright painted Washington’s face in 1784, then the partial portrait was sent to Paris where John Trumbull painted the background and Washington’s uniform—in the correct colors but with the wrong epaulets. Jefferson thought he was getting an original, but the painting he received was probably copied from Wright’s first life study of Washington, painted the previous year. (Trumbull also painted a number of other Washington portraits—borrowing likenesses from his own and others’ work.)

Jefferson also convinced the Virginia Assembly to commission the leading Parisian sculptor of the day, Jean-Antoine Houdon, to portray General Washington. Initially, a full-length portrait by Charles Willson Peale was shipped to Jefferson in Paris for Houdon to work from. But then Jefferson persuaded the Virginians it would turn out better if they’d pay for Houdon’s trip to Mt. Vernon to sculpt the great man from life, which he did in 1785. The trip paid off for Houdon, who went on to make multiple versions of Washington’s bust in marble and plaster.

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, Athenaeum Portrait

The Athenaeum Portrait, Gilbert Stuart, 1796

The most famous Washington portrait is the one that wasn’t finished, known as the Atheneum portrait, by Gilbert Stuart. That’s the image you see on your $1 bills. Stuart painted Washington from life three times, beginning in 1795. Then he proceeded to make about 100 copies based on these three works. Stuart is considered the leading portrait artist of the era and the Atheneum is one of his most accomplished portraits, but painting it was challenging—not only because of Washington’s new false teeth. Stuart liked to get people chatting to get the right expression, but found Washington difficult and reserved, until they finally got to talking about horses—that loosened him up (or so Stuart said—he doesn’t look that loose here, does he?).

The Washington portrait in that Philadelphia museum we visited is by James Peale, the brother of Charles Willson Peale, who painted Washington from life more often than any other artist. I find some of C.W. Peale’s portraits to be a little stilted, but I like his story. He was a dedicated, even radical patriot, and a soldier during the revolution. He tried a number of trades: he was a saddler, a watchmaker, an upholsterer, and a silversmith. (He also had expertise in carpentry, dentistry, optometry, shoemaking, and taxidermy!) But he found he could best support his family as an artist. Peale had an entrepreneurial, showman side. He created a unique museum of revolutionary hero portraits in Philadelphia, which turned out to be rather profitable. In the course of his career, he painted Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, Alexander Hamilton, French General Rochambeau (who helped Washington defeat the British at Yorktown), and many, many others. And he painted about 60 portraits of George Washington, based on the seven he painted from life.

PatriaePater, Father of the Country, Rembrandt Peale

PatriaePater (Father of his Country), Rembrandt Peale, 1823

And it sounds something of a family enterprise. Charles Willson Peale had 16 children (and three wives). He named all of his sons for artists or scientists, and taught them to paint; three of them, Rembrandt, Raphaelle, and Titian, became noted artists in their own right. Some consider Rembrandt Peale to be even more accomplished than his famous father. In 1795, at only 17, Rembrandt painted a life portrait of Washington during the president’s second term. This rare opportunity had been arranged by the senior Peale, who painted next to his son “to calm [his] nerves”. Rembrandt Peale made many copies of his own portraits, but he also copied Gilbert Stuart’s portraits. I like Rembrandt’s glowing, heroic head of the president, gazing off into the heavens for eternity—this was painted long after Washington had died. After creating the Patriæ Pater (Father of his Country) portrait Rembrandt Peale published a pamphlet with glowing compliments on his own painting from people who knew Washington.

George Washington, James Peale, 1787-90

Washington, James Peale, 1790

The James Peale portrait in the Philadelphia museum was painted in about 1787-90, copied from a portrait by his brother Charles. James cranked out ten different versions of Washington’s portrait, and had a little fun with them. This one includes a background scene from the siege of Yorktown, and the artist included portraits of himself and his brother as Washington’s companions. In 1849, when the city of Philadelphia began its museum of revolution-era heroes’  portraits, Washington’s was the first one they purchased. Ranger Bill Troppman at Valley Forge said he wants to get down to see it.

I read somewhere that Martha Washington’s favorite portrait of her husband was Gilbert Stuart’s flattering first painting. Jefferson thought the Wright-Trumbull portrait was the best likeness of the man, although less favorable than some. “It shews him as he was in the moments of his gravest difficulties.” But Rembrandt Peale and many others considered Houdon’s bust to be the most successful portrait of Washington, which is saying something considering how many there were to choose from.


*The portrait and bust now at Monticello are copies, commissioned by the foundation, of the original works by Wright-Trumbull and Houdon that Jefferson had in his home. Jefferson was so in debt when he died that his heirs had to sell his artwork, along with his slaves and almost everything else in Monticello.




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