Library Portraits of George Washington

“I am so hackneyed to the touches of the painter’s pencil, that I am now altogether at their beck…no dray moves more readily to the Thrill, than I do to the Painter’s Chair.”
—from a letter by George Washington to Francis Hopkinson, May 16, 1785

Today we celebrate George Washington’s birth in 1732 through the work of Rembrandt Peale, who was also born on February 22nd, but in 1778. Without Mr. Peale there would be far fewer portraits of the first president of the United States.

Rembrandt Peale was the son of portraitist Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), who fathered 17 children by two wives; his sons and daughters were named for artists whom their father admired. Rembrandt had brothers Raphaelle (1774–1825), Rubens Peale (1784–1865) and Titian (1799–1885). Among his sisters, Angelica Kauffman Peale (1775–1850) was named for Angelica Kauffman, the father’s favorite female painter. Rembrandt developed his natural talents by copying portraits his father had painted.

In 1795 G.W. Peale asked Mr. Washington, on his son’s behalf, to sit for a portrait. The President agreed to three, three-hour sittings, from seven to ten in the morning. When Washington showed up for the first sitting, it had already been established that Charles Willson Peale would be in the room, relieving his son of the need to engage the sitter in conversation and paint at the same time. After the third and final sitting Rembrandt Peale completed a minimum of ten copies of the portrait. Mr. Washington was sixty-three years of age when Rembrandt Peale painted this study from life.

Mr. Peale had a nagging desire to present a grand and inspiring image of Mr. Washington; and he knew that the man he had painted in 1795 was not it. The portrait that he painted showed a man ground down by his high office, no longer the commanding general of the Revolution. Mr. Peale became obsessed with portraying the heroic George Washington that Americans held in their thoughts.

George Washington, New York Pulbic Library, Rembrandt Peale, Portrait, American Art, Painting

“George Washington” 1850 by Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), at the NY Public Library.

In 1850, a full 55 years after his life study and 51 years after Mr. Washington’s death, the portrait that Mr. Peale painted shows us General Washington through a massive stone oval. Taking his inspiration from several sources, including what his father had painted and what Jean-Antoine Houdon had sculpted. More iconic than likeness, this bust pose has been called the “Porthole” portrait. It had belonged to James Lenox when when his library merged with the Astor Library and the Tilden Library to form the New York Public Library, where it hangs in a second-floor reading room.

George Washington, New York Pulbic Library, Rembrandt Peale, Portrait, American Art, Painting

“George Washington” 1859 by Rembrandt Peale, after Gilbert Stuart, NY Public Library.

In 1795 and 1796, President Washington sat for Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828). The final result created from these sittings is now commonly known as the “Vaughan Portrait,” because one of the surviving portrait examples was held in the collection of Samuel Vaughan, a London merchant. It has been said that Gilbert Stuart, fresh from a stay in England, where he painted portraits of lords and ladies, portrayed Mr. Washington as if he were a British aristocrat.

This oil-on-canvas copy was painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1859, one year before his death. It was bought by James Lenox at a sale of Mr. Peale’s belongings in 1862. It became part of the collection of the New York Public Library when the Lenox Library merged with the Astor Library and the Tilden Library to form the NY Public Library.

Please read our previously published articles marking the birthday of the first president of the United States.
George Washington as Roman Emperor
In Washington’s Good Company
A Birthday Tribute to George Washington

Our Greenwich Village Walking Tour starts at New York’s grandest tribute to George Washington, the Washington Arch. Our Downtown Manhattan Walking Tour also has images and stories of the first American president. Take the Tour Know More!

ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT NOTED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2017

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