This painting is both one of the first and one of the most splendid fine art acquisitions by the Senate. American artist Rembrandt Peale created the portrait in 1823, basing it on his earlier life studies of Washington. Peale hoped it would become known as the standard likeness of the first president. After exhibiting the work in the Capitol and throughout Europe, the artist succeeded in selling it to the Senate in 1832.
Rembrandt Peale and his father, Charles Willson Peale, painted George Washington from life in Philadelphia in the fall of 1795. The Peales alternated with portraitist Gilbert Stuart--the Peales painted Washington one day and Stuart, the next. The younger Peale was never fully satisfied with his resulting life portrait. Nor, in fact, did he consider any existing portrait of Washington, whether by his father, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, or any other contemporary artist, to be a worthy and true representation.
Therefore, almost a quarter century after his initial life study, Peale set out to create a portrait that would show Washington's "mild, thoughtful and dignified, yet firm and energetic countenance." In his privately-printed essay, Lecture on Washington and his Portraits, Peale recounted repeated attempts to put on canvas "the Image which was so strong in my mind, by an effort of combinations, chiefly of my father's and my own studies." In 1823, after numerous attempts, Peale made one final effort. Confining himself to his studio for three months, he painted in a "poetic frenzy," creating what he hoped would become the standard likeness of Washington. When completed the portrait was given the blessing of the elder Peale, who, Rembrandt reported, judged it the best he had ever seen. Because Peale placed his painted likeness of Washington in a representation of a masonry porthole surrounded by an honorific wreath of oak leaves, the picture has come to be called the "porthole portrait."
Peale brought the completed painting to the United States Capitol, where it was viewed by senators, congressmen, and many of President Washington's friends and relatives. Later he took the portrait to Europe for exhibition in Naples, Rome, Florence, Paris, and London. In 1832, he sold the portrait to the Senate for $2,000.
When purchased, the painting hung in the Senate Chamber, where it was elegantly draped and regarded with much esteem. When the Senate vacated the room for its new chamber in 1859, the portrait was placed in the Vice President's Room near the Senate floor. It remained there until restoration of the Old Senate Chamber in 1976 made possible the return of the portrait to its historic location.
Between seventy-five and eighty copies of the original "porthole" portrait of Washington exist, with slight variations. Peale justified the many replicas by claiming that, as the only living painter who had seen Washington, "the reduplication of [my] work, by [my] own hand, should be esteemed the most reliable."