Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799)
Origin: America, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Unframed: 96 1/4 x 61 3/4in. (244.5 x 156.8cm) and Framed: 106 x 71 1/4 x 3 1/2in.
Gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Acc. No. 1933-502,A&B
A full-length portrait of a man, standing in the uniform (dark blue with buff facings) of the Continental army, also a buff waistcoat and white knee breeches, with a broad blue ribbon across his chest; he is turned slightly to the viewer's left and holds his hat in his proper right hand, which rests on his hip; his proper left hand rests on a cannon barrel, which projects into the picture from center right. He stands with his weight on his proper right foot, his proper left leg bent and crossed over the right at the knee, the toe resting on the ground.
Several buildings are visible in the left background, including a very large, 3 1/2-story one with multiple chimnies and a cupola. In the open space between the buildings and the central figure, soldiers under guard are being marched off to the right. In the middle ground at far left, two horsemen are shown beside a leafless tree, one of them pointing toward the retreating column of soldiers. At far right, close to the central figure, an attendant holds a horse by the bridle beneath a blue flag with thirteen stars in a circle. Other flags and military accountrements strew the ground in front of and beside the central figure.
The frame is a 5 1/4-inch black-painted, scoop-molded example with applied, gilded decorations of corn husks (at the sight edge), ribbon and stick (inside the primary curve), and leaf-and-tongue (along the outermost edge). The frame is a replacement probably dating from the mid-nineteenth century (or possibly as late as the early 20th century). It may be a copy of the painting's original frame, being almost identical in style, for instance, to the original frame on Peale's portrait of John Dickinson at the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. For more observations on the frame, see the file notes of 12/6/1994 and 3/5/2000.
Label:In 1779, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania commissioned a portrait of George Washington to honor him and the American victories he won during the Revolutionary War. The result was the original painting now hanging in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The picture, America’s first “state portrait,” was an immediate success. It served as the basis for Peale’s numerous nearly identical versions, including this example that hung for more than a hundred years at Shirley Plantation in Virginia.
Peale’s careful composition contains symbolic elements relating to the war and to Washington’s victorious leadership at the Battle of Princeton. The general stands with his hand resting on a canon, a powerful instrument of war. The British ensign flag lies fallen to one side on the ground, as do other captured flags. To the left is the Princeton battlefield with the debris of war, the marching of captured British soldiers, and college buildings.
Provenance:The painting is believed to have hung at Shirley, a Carter family plantation in Charles City County, Virginia, from the late eighteenth --- or at least the early nineteenth --- century until 1928, when it was bought from a Carter family descendant (Mrs. Marion Carter Oliver) by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who then gave it to CWF in 1933.
How, when, and why the painting initially went to Shirley is imprecisely documented. Most likely, General Thomas Nelson (1738-1789) of Yorktown, Va., commissioned the painting while in Philadelphia as a congressional delegate February 18-April 22, 1779 (see Sellers, p. 230), and Nelson's daughter Mary (1774-1803; see "Notes") inherited the painting on her father's death. Mary Nelson's 1794 marriage to Robert Carter (1774-1805), son of Charles Carter (1732-1806) of Shirley and his second wife, Anne Butler Moore (d. 1809), provides a plausible rationale for the painting's removal to Shirley.
Regarding Carter family tradition involving the history of the painting (which contradicts the preceding only in minor details), see the file letter of June 8, 1928, from the Frick Art Reference Library to Herbert Putnam of the Library of Congress regarding the history of 1933-502 as imparted to the Frick by the late Mrs. Alice Carter Bransford of Shirley.
With the premature deaths of both Robert (1805) and Mary Nelson Carter (1803), likely the initial plan was that their children --- Hill (1796-1870), Ann (m. 1819), Lucy (1799-1835), and Thomas Nelson Carter (1800-1883) --- would be reared by their paternal grandfather. However, Charles Carter died in 1806, only a year after his son Robert, and guardianship of the children fell to the children's uncle, Williams Carter (1782-1864), who returned to Virginia from Paris to fulfill the obligation.
Inscription(s):Inscribed in black paint at lower left, about 10 1/2-inches above the sight edge of the lower frame member: "Chas: WPeale ["W" and "P" in ligature] pinxt:/Philadelphia. 1780". (See detail photo in file for styles and configuration of the lettering, etc.)