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George Washington at Princeton

Title George Washington at Princeton
Artist/Maker Charles Willson Peale ( 1741   -   1827 )  
Date 1779
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions h. 91.63 x w. 58.38 in. (h. 232.7 x w. 148.3 cm)
Credit Line U.S. Senate Collection
Accession Number 31.00002.000

  • Object Description
  • Charles Willson Peale painted George Washington more times from life than any other artist. In 1772 Peale visited Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, to portray the hero as a colonel of the Virginia regiment, the only pre-Revolutionary likeness of him. In 1795 Peale and other members of his family painted the president for the last time during his second term. All told, Peale had seven opportunities to paint the great man at different times in his career, and he replicated many of the paintings.

    None was as popular as the enduring image of Washington after the Battle of Princeton, which was commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania for its council chamber in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The original, now owned by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was completed in early 1779, when Washington sat for Peale in Philadelphia. An immediate success, it precipitated a great demand for replicas. Of the estimated 18 replicas, the superlative Senate picture is the earliest recorded one that Peale made, although there was a contemporary published notice that five replicas had been ordered as early as February 1779. The Senate picture was purchased from the artist by the French Ambassador Conrad-Alexandre Gerard, probably on behalf of Louis XVI, and paid for with a bill of exchange on July 15, 1779. The ambassador, who sat for Peale for his own portrait in September, took the painting of Washington home to France shortly thereafter and presented it to the king. This scenario is confirmed in a letter from Peale, dated October 15, 1779, to Edmund Jenings in Brussels. Peale sent Jenings a miniature portrait of Washington, with the remark that “The Likeness is something different from that which his Excellency Sieur Gerard Carries for the King.” [1]

    Henry Tuckerman, in his 1867 Book of the Artists, wrote that “the misfortunes of the royal family occasioned its [the portrait’s] sale, and it became the property of Count de Menou, who brought it again to this country.” [2] It is not clear when that occurred, but the count is reported to have sold the painting in October 1841 to Charles B. Calvert of Prince George’s County, Maryland, for $200. Calvert, in turn, deposited it with The National Institution for the Promotion of Science (incorporated in 1842 as simply the National Institute). In 1858 the art objects owned by the institute were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. Explorer-naturalist Titian Ramsey Peale II, a son of the artist, petitioned the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents in 1870, claiming ownership of the painting on behalf of his father’s heirs. The claim was rejected because of insufficient evidence, but in February 1882 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution instructing the Joint Committee on the Library to “inquire into the expediency of purchasing the picture . . . now alleged to be the property of Titian R. Peale.” [3] On April 10, 1882, the committee paid $5,000 to Titian Peale to acquire the portrait.

    The portrait, with its specific reference to a battle, was a complicated undertaking. Of course, Peale invented the composition. Washington, wearing a blue and buff uniform with the blue sash of the commander-in-chief, leans lightly on the barrel of a captured cannon. Two Hessian flags captured at Trenton are beside him and at his feet. A British ensign lies on the ground to the left. Behind him, an officer holds his commander’s horse, while above them flies the blue battle flag with a circle of 13 stars. A second horse is glimpsed at the right. On a shadowed rise in the left middle distance, beside a barren, wintry tree, are two mounted soldiers with rifles. One of them gestures toward a procession of 16 red-coated prisoners under guard farther back. Beyond is a group of six or seven buildings, including Nassau Hall, the principal building of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). The hall was included for its significance in the battle–-the engagement actually ended within its walls.

    It was a landscape Peale knew well. The artist had served in the Continental army for three years, commanding a company of Philadelphia militia. He saw action at the Battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown. At Princeton, he found himself in the front line at the battle’s climax, with Washington in command. It is rare, indeed, for a painter of military history to have participated in the engagement being depicted. Peale wrote in his diary that they “stood the Fire without regarding [the] Balls which whistled their thousand different notes around our heads, and what is very astonishing did little or no harm.” [4] Peale visited both Trenton and Princeton to observe and sketch the landscape in preparation for the painting, and he obviously had vivid memories of the Battle at Princeton.

    To modern viewers, Washington’s cross-legged pose–-a complex play of angles and curves around the central vertical axis of the upper left leg, torso, and head–-may seem awkward. The curves of the coat’s edges, sash, and left arm are played against the abrupt angles of Washington’s right elbow, his left knee, and his heels. Peale effectively repeats the shapes of the elbow and the brim of the hat, held inverted in Washington’s right hand. Asymmetries animate the portrait: Washington leans slightly, which pulls his head just to the right of center, with the angle balanced by the inward angle of the battle flag.

    Peale likely modeled this pose after one of Thomas Gainsborough’s masterpieces, Augustus Hervey, 3rd Earl of Bristol, located at the National Trust’s Ickworth House in England. Although the stance (derived from ancient Roman sculptural sources) was quite prevalent in English portraiture of the period, this Gainsborough painting of a naval captain offers the closest parallel to Peale’s portrait, including a captured battle flag at the feet.

    With two years of study and practice in London (1767-69) behind him, Peale had a solid knowledge of contemporary English portraiture. In the 1768 Society of Artists Exhibition in London, in which Peale himself exhibited, he had seen the Gainsborough painting. The most significant difference between the two subjects arises from Peale’s literal directness: Where Gainsborough’s Hervey is positioned on a diagonal within the picture space and looks away from the viewer, Peale’s Washington is nearly frontal and looks directly at the viewer with a candid, affable expression. This is, in fact, a defining characteristic of Peale’s portraiture. Avoiding any classical symbolism (he had earlier pictured William Pitt in a Roman toga), Peale produced a realistic, accurate portrait of the general. At six foot two, Washington stood a full head above the average soldier in his army. He had narrow shoulders, wide hips, long arms and legs, and very large hands and feet. His head was small in relation to the length of his body.

    Although Peale’s likeness of Washington did not match the ideal canon of proportions espoused by the art academies, it was nonetheless accurate. Peale knew the general better than any other artist did, and his artistic abilities are not in doubt. In addition, the full-length portraits of Washington by John Trumbull and Jean-Antoine Houdon second the evidence of Peale’s likeness. Only Gilbert Stuart’s several full-length portraits seem closer to ideal proportions, and their greater public fame has given them an authority they do not deserve. Stuart idealized his sitters more than Peale did, and when he was painting the general’s body, he used a visitor to his studio as a surrogate model. Apart from the face, Stuart’s Washington fails as an accurate record of the hero’s physical appearance.

    In Peale’s painting, Washington is strongly silhouetted against a pinkish-blue sky, with the horizon line at the mid-level of the canvas. It is dawn, the hour when the battle commenced. It might, at the same time, be the symbolic dawn of eventual success in the War for Independence. Optimism is embodied in the general’s glowing face: Confident and self-possessed, this is the definitive image of George Washington at the apogee of his vigorous manhood and military career.

    The popular success of George Washington at Princeton led to orders for as many replicas as Peale could produce. In August 1779 the artist wrote: “I have on hand a number of portraits of Gen. Washington. One the ambassador had for the Court of France, another is done for the Spanish Court, one other has been sent to the island of Cuba, and sundry others, which I have on hand are for private gentlemen.” [5] Versions vary in size and composition–-with the background and the treatment of the figure of Washington altered by Peale. Changes included replacing the soldiers and horses with a bleak winter landscape, updating the general’s insignia according to the most recently issued orders, and giving greater prominence to the colonial flag. Other full-length versions by Charles Willson Peale are found at Princeton University in New Jersey, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

    1. Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale (New York: Scribner, 1969), 182.

    2. Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of American Artists (1867; reprint, New York: James F. Carr, 1966), 51.

    3. Congressional Record (6 February 1882) vol. 13, pt. 1: 912.

    4. Charles Coleman Sellers, The Artist of the Revolution: The Early Life of Charles Willson Peale (Hebron, CT: Feather & Good, 1939), 150.

    5. Charles Coleman Sellers, “Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 42 (June 1952): 226.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings
  • Signature (lower left corner): C: W: Peale pinxt: / Philadelphia 1779
  • Sitter(s)
  • Washington, George

    The Battle of Princeton, New Jersey, fought on January 3, 1777, followed George Washington's legendary victory at nearby Trenton. There, Washington braved floating ice to cross the Delaware River in the early morning hours of December 26, 1776, and defeated a brigade of Hessian mercenaries. Afterwards, he returned to his Pennsylvania camp.

    On December 30, Washington recrossed the river and took position outside Trenton, on the south bank of Assunpink Creek. Under orders to destroy the American army and avenge the defeat at Trenton, the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, marched to meet Washington, leaving three regiments behind at Princeton as a rear guard. American detachments harassed and delayed the British advance, and it was not until dusk on January 2 that the British army arrived in front of the American position. After fitful skirmishing, Cornwallis decided to encamp for the night, intending to attack the Americans the next day. Expecting this strategy, Washington broke camp, leaving a few men to keep the fires lit and the appearance that all was unchanged. Taking an unguarded back road, he and his men slipped past Cornwallis's army during the night and, at dawn on January 3, encountered British reinforcements hurrying from Princeton to join Cornwallis. Unprepared for the sudden meeting, the American advance guard was routed. However, Washington soon arrived on the field, rallied his troops, and led a charge that put the British to flight and opened the way to Princeton. After a short engagement in the town itself, the remainder of the British garrison surrendered. By the time Cornwallis arrived on the outskirts of the town with his main force, Washington had slipped away.

    The Battles of Trenton and Princeton are considered among Washington's greatest victories. The success of those 10 crucial days bolstered American morale and renewed confidence in the Revolutionary War effort.

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