Painting, Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799)

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  • Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)
  • America, Mid-Atlantic, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  • 1780
  • Oil on linen ticking
  • Gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
  • 1933-502

There are several closely related versions of this painting, most, like this one, being copies, or replicas, after Peale's original painting of 1779, which is owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, the gift of Maria McKean Allen and Phebe Warren Downes through the bequest of their mother, Elizabeth Wharton McKean.

On January 18, 1779, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, "deeply sensible how much the liberty, safety and happiness of America is owing to His Excellency General Washington," officially requested that the commander sit to Peale for a portrait intended for display in its Council Chamber. Washington acquiesced and posed in Philadelphia in late January, departing the city on February 1, with Peale independently traveling back to Trenton and Princeton on February 22 to render preliminary sketches for the background and details such as the cannon.

Peale began receiving requests for replicas even before the original painting was completed. He varied these, rendering both full-length and three-quarter-length versions and placing the commander variously on the battlefields of Princeton (as he is seen here), Trenton, or Yorktown. Including the original painting at the Pennsylvania Academy and Colonial Williamsburg's replica, a total of eight full-length versions are known to survive. Peale used a state portrait formula in posing Washington, echoing, for example, the stance of George III in Allan Ramsay's coronation portrait of the British monarch (and thereby creating a statement that was satiric as well as earnest). Could anyone viewing Peale's painting doubt that America possessed heroic leaders on a par with Europe's? The monumental scale of the painting provides further analogies with European state portraiture, as does the fact that several of Peale's Washington replicas were sent abroad, including one presented to Louis XVI. Although the early history of this replica remains unconfirmed, the painting is distinguished by having hung at Shirley Plantation, the Carter family seat on the James River near Richmond, since at least the early nineteenth century.

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