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George Washington

Title George Washington
Artist/Maker William Dunlap ( 1766   -   1839 )  
Date 1783 ca.
Medium Pastel on paper
Dimensions h. 25.5 x w. 19.5 in. (h. 64.8 x w. 49.5 cm)
Credit Line U.S. Senate Collection
Accession Number 31.00015.000

  • Object Description
  • William Dunlap’s pastel portrait of George Washington is remarkable as the earliest-known painting by a man better known for his invaluable publication History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834), the first attempt to chronicle the art of this country. The painting survived (despite damage by fire while it resided in San Francisco) for more than 150 years in the possession of the Van Horne family, its authenticity affirmed by Dunlap himself. In 1838, near the end of his life, Dunlap wrote a statement confirming his authorship of the Senate’s Washington pastel, briefly describing the circumstances of the sitting. Equally conclusive, and more compelling, is the story of the portrait’s origin included in his autobiography–-already published in his Rise and Progress.

    Having received meager training in art from the American painter William Williams, Dunlap embarked on his youthful career in 1782 by executing portraits in “crayons” (pastels) of his father, other relatives, and friends. In the autumn of 1783, he visited Rocky Hill, New Jersey, home of John Van Horne. General Washington’s temporary headquarters was nearby while Congress was convening at Princeton College, and Washington was a frequent visitor to the Van Horne home, so Dunlap “was of course introduced to him.” 1 The young artist had made pastel portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Van Horne, and Washington praised them (“doubtless the mere wish to encourage youth,” according to Dunlap). As a result, Dunlap recalled, John Van Horne “requested him to sit to me and he complied. This was a triumphant moment for a boy of seventeen...but it was one of anxiety, fear and trembling.” 2

    Although family tradition maintains that Dunlap’s portrait of Washington was executed at the Van Horne estate, Dunlap’s very specific, detailed, and charming reminiscence differs:

    My visits were now frequent to head quarters. . . .  The soldiers [at headquarters] were New-England yeomen’s sons, none older than twenty; their commander was Captain Howe. . . .  I was astonished when the simple Yankee sentinels, deceived by my fine clothes, saluted me as I passed daily to and fro; but Captain Howe’s praise of my portrait of the general appeared to me as a thing of course, though surely he was as much deceived as his soldiers. I was quite at home in every respect at head quarters . . .[to be] noticed as the young painter, was delicious. The general’s portrait led to the sitting of the lady [Martha Washington]. I made what were thought likenesses, and presented them to Mr. and Mrs. Van Horne, taking copies for myself. 3

    It would be pleasant to report that the portrait was as fine as the praise bestowed on the young man’s work, but, in fact, it is labored and awkward. The Continental army uniform (despite evident effort) is mostly unconvincing, from the odd abstraction of the ruffled shirtfront to the epaulets that look more like strands from an old mop. Still, to his credit, Dunlap manages to render Washington’s prominent and idiosyncratic nose with success, and the eye sockets are smoothly modeled. One spatial problem–-the viewer’s uncertainty that a neck lies behind the neck cloth–-may well be due to the fact that Dunlap had lost the sight of his right eye in a childhood accident. This loss “prevented all further regular schooling,” and Dunlap also believed that “either from nature or the above accident, I did not possess a painter’s eye for colour; but I was now devoted to painting as a profession, and I did not suspect any deficiency.” 4 It is much more likely that his spatial perception, rather than his color perception, was altered.

    But there is no need to belabor the shortcomings of a teenager’s portrait of the most famous man of his day. Dunlap was his own severest critic. Early in his artistic career, Dunlap had gone to London to study with American neoclassical painter Benjamin West. On his return, he established himself as a portrait and miniature painter, while also working as a theatrical manager. He later painted large allegorical and religious pictures, similar to those of Benjamin West. Looking back from old age to his early painting career, Dunlap wrote, “I now intend to show the causes that, at the age of twenty-three, and after a long residence in London, left me ignorant of anatomy, perspective, drawing, and colouring, and returned me home a most incapable painter.” 5

    In addition to painting, Dunlap spent time as a militia paymaster, was one of the founders of the National Academy of Design in New York City, and was involved in civic and cultural affairs throughout his lifetime. He remarked at one time, “The good artist who is not a good man, is a traitor to the arts, and an enemy to society.” 6

    In 1926 Augustus Van Horne Ellis wrote to Charles Fairman, curator for the architect of the Capitol, about the youthful Dunlap’s “crayon portrait” of General George Washington from life, which had been handed down through his family. The two men corresponded over the next 11 years, discussing the possible gift of the portrait to the U.S. government. Not until after Ellis’s death, however, was the painting accepted by the Joint Committee on the Library as a gift to the “Senate branch of the Capitol” from Anne Middleton Ellis in memory of her husband.

    1. William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, vol. 1 (1834; reprint, 2 vols. in 3, edited by Rita Weiss, New York: Dover Publications, 1969), 252.

    2. Ibid., 253, 254.

    3. Ibid., 254.

    4. Ibid., 250.

    5. Ibid., 243.

    6. Ibid., xv.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings
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  • Sitter(s)
  • Washington, George

    George Washington, first president of the United States, earned the epithet Father of His Country for his great leadership, both in the fight for independence and in unifying the new nation under a central government. Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and worked as a surveyor in his youth. In 1752 he inherited a family estate, Mount Vernon, upon the death of a half brother, Lawrence. Washington's military career began in 1753, when he accepted an appointment to carry a warning to French forces who had pushed into British territory in the Ohio valley. In subsequent military assignments, Washington distinguished himself against the French, first while aiding General Edward Braddock and later as commander-in-chief of all Virginia militia.

    In 1758 Washington returned to civilian life as a gentleman-farmer at Mount Vernon and soon took a seat in the Virginia house of burgesses. As a planter, Washington had firsthand knowledge of the economic restrictions being imposed by Britain, and as a Virginia legislator, he supported political efforts to curtail British control of the colonies. Washington was selected to serve as a delegate to the first and second Continental Congresses, and in June 1775 he was chosen to command the American forces. He successfully led the Continental army through eight difficult years of war for independence.

    In 1783, after the Revolution, Washington resigned his military commission to Congress at Annapolis, Maryland. Recognizing the need for a strong central government, he served as president of the federal convention charged with drafting the Constitution. Reluctantly, he accepted the will of his colleagues to become president of the new nation, and he was inaugurated in New York City on April 30, 1789. Contending with the ideological struggles within the government, and with hostilities between France and Great Britain, Washington greatly feared the growth of political parties and the dangers of foreign involvement. These issues impelled him to serve a second term as president.

    His attempts to solve foreign relations issues during his second term resulted in Jay's Treaty (1794), a vain attempt to regulate trade and settle boundary disputes with Great Britain, and the Pinckney Treaty (1795), which successfully settled such issues with Spain. Washington also acted vigorously to enforce federal authority by quashing the Whiskey Rebellion, during which liquor producers in western Pennsylvania threatened the new republic by rebelling against an unpopular excise tax on whiskey.

    Washington's 1796 Farewell Address to the nation emphasized the need for a unified federal government and warned against party faction and foreign influence. Although often subjected to harsh criticism by his contemporaries, Washington succeeded in giving the new government dignity. He saw a federal financial system firmly established through the efforts of Alexander Hamilton, and he set valuable precedents in the conduct of the executive office. Washington retired to Mount Vernon, where he died on December 14, 1799.

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