Friday, September 14, 2012

Cashing in on George
This 1772 painting of George Washington is the first portrait of him painted from life, and depicts him in his uniform as a colonel of the Virginia Regiment, from the French and Indian War. It was actually painted 12 years after the war by Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), a friend who had served with Washington.
While most of us automatically think of Gilbert Stuart when we think of Washington's portraits, Charles Wilson Peale actually painted seven life portraits of the President, more than any other artist. As I mentioned in my posting, George Washington's Left Eye, life portraits of Washington were a goldmine for artists of the new republic because they served as templates from which many lucrative copies could be made.
And so Peale painted dozens of Washington portraits. The most successful depicted Washington at the Battle of Princeton. The first version was finished in 1779, and 18 copies were made of it, including one for King Louis XVI of France.  |  |  |
Here, I've cropped four versions so that the faces can be better seen. I'm guessing that Peale had a replica of Washington's uniform and posed models in it, then simply superimposed the same head, painting after painting.

Peale had 16 children and three of his sons — Raphaelle, Rembrandt and Rubens — were also gifted artists. A fourth, Titian Peale, was both an artist and a pioneer in photography.

In 1795, George Washington agreed to sit one last time for Charles Wilson Peale. Peale painted Washington, but he had actually arranged the sitting so that 17-year-old Rembrandt could also paint the elderly President, thereby assuring a lifetime of commissions for Rembrandt. Below is the 17-year-old's first portrait of Washington.

click to enlarge  |
His father did indeed insure a lifetime of work, and Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) went on to paint Washington for years. Rembrandt Peale's most popular portrait is the polished Patriæ Pater, shown below (I wish I could find a larger example of it!).

I think the most successful portrait of Washington (by anyone) is the Rembrandt Peale version that has hung in the Oval Office through many administrations.  |
You can see that aside from the uniform, it is a nearly identical to Patriæ Pater.  |  Mathew Brady: Historian with a Camera
Above left is a self-portrait of Rembrandt Peale and on the right is a daguerreotype portrait of him by Mathew Brady. By the time Rembrandt Peale sat for Brady, he was in his last years, and the only remaining artist who had painted Washington from life.


  1. Hello Mark:
    It has been fascinating looking at all these 'Washingtons' and spotting the differences between them.

    One might have thought that to be christened Rembrandt or Titian in life could have been a drawback but, clearly, the members of the Peale family turned it to their advantages.

    The portrait in the Oval Office is wonderful. The translucent quality of the light as it falls on the face and the uniform is captivating. Inspiration for presidents to gaze upon!!

    1. Hello, Jane and Lance:

      As I said, the Peale portrait has hung in the Oval Office through numerous administrations and I suppose that by now (and certainly in our ugly political climate) to change him out would be sacrilege. But his presence should be sobering to office occupants since Washington's wisdom set the course for all the Presidential powers that were otherwise undefined.

  2. From the paintings you have shown, in my view, Rambrandt Peale's skill at portraiture appears to be superior to that of his father, but how could he go wrong with a name like that!!!
    Imagine having so many children and giving them such painterly names; I wonder whether they had any choice in their future professions?
    I agree that the portrait in the Oval Office is a very fine painting.

    1. Dear Rosemary, I agree with you that Rembrandt Peale surpassed his father. Besides being obviously influenced by his father's work, Rembrandt went to London and studied with John Singleton Copley, who painted strong and luxurious portraits, noted for their beautiful shadows and highlights.

  3. Hello Mark, I have read that figures and life masks of Washington were also made to serve as models for portraits, most notably the famous bust by Houdon. Of the portraits you feature here, I think that the Rembrandt Peale one best portrays the dignity and position that history conferred upon him, but I also like the youthful swagger and pleased expression of the Charles Wilson Peale Battle of Princeton portrait.
    --Road to Parnassus

    1. Hello, Parnassus,

      Thanks for the mention of those life masks.

      I like the swagger of that Princeton painting, too. I've read several biographies of Washington, and while he could flirt with ladies, in most people — including his adoptive grandchildren — he inspired awe and a quite a bit of trepidation.

      Years before the American Revoultion, Thomas Jefferson first saw him in a Williamsburg tavern, where Jefferson recorded watching Washinton crush walnuts with his bare hands. How's that for a first impression?

  4. Dear Mark, So many learned comments have already been published...I can add nothing more. It is your response to the Hattatts that stirred my heart.

  5. While these portraits and paintings are regarded as stately, I do find them a bit naive. Washington's head seems small compared to the body....perhaps because the head was superimposed?? What a gifted family!

    1. Hi, Loi - I had to take a second look, and by golly, you're right! The head in the Princeton portrait seems a bit small. One thing I know to be true is that Washington had unusually wide hips, and that is correctly represented in the first two portraits.

    2. Now Mark you know I won't forget that fact about his hips :) Wait till I visit Mt Vernon again! haha

  6. Rembrandt Peale actually has painted three of my favorite portraits, Mark, but none of them are of Washington. If pressed I'd say I like the one of Washington crossing the Delaware done by another artist and the one you show at the top of the post of Washinton in blazing red done by Peale pere. I always think of poor Mrs. Peale having to spend most of her life pregnant, but that's a story for another day. She died when Rembrandt Peale was 8 - not a big surprise.

    Three paintings by Rembrandt Peale that I love: (in case you were wondering)

    Rubens Peale with Geranium
    Portrait of Rosalba Peale
    and Rembrandt Peale's self portrait which you show. A wonderful painting.

    As an aside can you imagine going throughout your life named after Rembrandt or Rubens or Titian or whatnot? And being a painter yourself? Can you spell 'pressure'?

    Thanks for a terrific post, Mark. I enjoyed reading about the copies and such. Never realized that, of course, that would have to be.

    1. Hi, Yvette - The three portraits you mention are all beautiful, and the one of Rosalba Peale is in particular.

      My favorite portrait by Rembrandt Peale is the one he painted of Thomas Jefferson, which I believe is probably the one most often reproduced of Jefferson. Can you imagine the stories that Peale could tell?

  7. Thank you for this post, which I found fascinating because of the comparisons you make between painted portraits, giving perhaps some comfort to the ideal that they were actually representative of the people being painted. Flattery undoubtedly destroyed this in many many instances, and I'm sure you are familiar with Henry VIII's annoyance at the lack of reality in the Holbein portrait of Anne of Cleves, whom he married, but whose marriage was never consummated, perhaps because the king found her less than his heart's (loin's?) desire.

    1. Dear Columnist,

      I am familiar with the story of Henry VIII's disappointment with Anne of Cleves (due in large part to Holbein's very flattering portrait).

      I have read that the portrait of Washington that Rembrandt Peale painted when he was 17 made Washington look older than Washington actually appeared at the time. And reflecting upon that, I am guessing that Rembrandt was anxious to record every possible pock mark and wrinkle, knowing that future paintings would be based largely upon this once-in-a-lifetime recording.

      I imagine Rembrandt Peale felt a lot of pressure that day!

  8. Dear Mark,
    What an interesting post! I think that my 'favourite' among the portraits you have shown is the one painted by Rembrandt Peale of Washington in his old age. He looks weary and there is no longer the somewhat carefree youthful light in his eye you see in the earliest portrait. I am sure that running a country, especially a young one such as the United States must have taken it's toll and the portrait seems to capture this.

    I am a distant relative of GW. He is always known as Cousin George in our family.

    1. Dear Kirk,

      I think George Washington was indeed pretty weary, and my reading of his life makes me have great empathy for him. Few people realize that he never actually realized his greatest dreams, that his career was one frustration after another, and that honor came his way relatively late in life.

  9. Hello Mark,
    I think the son surpassed the father in this case-very impressive. I've tried painting people portraits and I find it soooo hard, yet I can reproduce objects and animal without any problems. Why is that?
    Perhaps I don't have the talent to capture the soul of the person. Very interesting post.

    1. Hi, Anyes,

      I think you've hit upon something that's so true of good portraiture, that it goes beyond capturing features and has as much to do with capturing emotion and character. Not always an easy thing!