By the late 18th century, George Washington, first the Commander-in-chief of the victorious Continental Army and subsequently the first president of the United States, was the most famous person in America and one of the most renowned men in the world. Many artists took his likeness,...
By the late 18th century, George Washington, first the Commander-in-chief of the victorious Continental Army and subsequently the first president of the United States, was the most famous person in America and one of the most renowned men in the world. Many artists took his likeness, but Charles Willson Peale was one of the first and most persistent, painting more than seventy likenesses of Washington during his career. Peale painted seven life portraits of Washington, beginning in 1772 when Washington was a colonel in the colonial militia, and ending in 1795, when he was midway through his second term as president. The "Head of Washington" is one of Peale's replicas of the canvas he painted in 1795; the original is in the New-York Historical Society. In addition to the MFA's painting, Peale completed at least seven other replicas of the 1795 canvas between 1795 and 1798; most are in private collections. (For a complete discussion of Peale's portraits of Washington and his replicas, see Charles Coleman Sellers, "Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale," Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 42, 1952, pp. 216-241.) Peale had temporarily ceased painting in 1795 and was devoting his attention to his natural history museum in Philadelphia. When Henry William De Saussure, director of the United States Mint, asked him to portray George Washington, Peale convinced De Saussure to give the commission to his seventeen-year-old son Rembrandt instead. The elder Peale did persuade Washington to pose, and, in order to smooth the way during the sittings, Peale decided to join Rembrandt and to paint Washington's portrait as well, intending to use it in his own museum. Thus both father and son showed up for the first meeting in the fall of 1795. At later appointments, James Peale, Charles Willson's brother, and Raphaelle and Titian Peale, two other sons, joined them. Painter Gilbert Stuart, who happened on the scene, quipped to Mrs. Washington that her husband was being "Pealed all around" (Lillian B. Miller, "In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale 1778-1860," Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 1992, p.32). While they were working, Charles Willson Peale sat to the right of Rembrandt, and thus in his portrait, Washington is turned about three quarters to the left. In Rembrandt's likeness, a replica of which is also in the MFA's collection (30.474), Washington is seen at a slightly different angle-somewhat more full-faced. Peale's 1795 image of Washington differs from his other six life portraits in that it is the only one painted when Washington was president and the only one where he is shown in civilian dress. In Peale's other life portraits, Washington wears his military uniform, commemorating his service on the battlefield and as a general. Peale, himself a former soldier, took great pains to render the uniform correctly, even updating the insignia of rank in his later replicas as Washington received more stars on his epaulets. In contrast, in the 1795 portrait there is little to take the viewer's attention away from Washington's face, and Peale appears to have concentrated on making that visage worthy of the leader of the new republic. The extent of Peale's idealization is evident in comparison with Rembrandt Peale's more straight forward likeness from the same sitting (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.). The elder Peale produced an image of a dignified, serious, and intelligent leader. Despite the many efforts of the Peales, it was Gilbert Stuart who produced the most enduring images of the first president of the United States (1980.1). However, Peale's portrait is notable for its classical idealism, as art historian Lillian Miller has noted, describing "a combination of particularity of image and a recognition of the meaning of the individual in public, or universal, terms, an image that is timeless and therefore iconic" (Lillian B. Miller and David C. Ward, eds., "New Perspectives on Charles Willson Peale," Pittsburgh: Smithsonian Institution and University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991, p. 99). Peale biographer Charles Coleman Sellers also found much to admire in the elder Peale's 1795 portrait, writing that the artist "caught a sense of movement, awareness, and intelligence which dignifies the face far more than that 'force of expression and effect' sought by later painters" (Sellers, p. 241). The MFA's replica is on a small panel, made after the much larger (29 by 23 ½ inch) original on canvas. There is one other small panel replica of the same portrait (private collection), but these are unusual in Peale's work. Peale painted "Head of Washington" for Mrs. John Callahan of Annapolis, Maryland, with whose family Peale often stayed when he visited the city. Peale had already completed portraits of John Callahan; Sarah Buckland Callahan and her daughter; and two Callahan daughters (all at the Hammond-Harwood House, Annapolis). The MFA's "Head of Washington" descended in the Callahan family for three generations, and was then acquired by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Sumner (74.30), known primarily as a vociferous advocate for the emancipation of slaves, was also a patron of the arts. In 1874, he bequeathed 94 paintings to the MFA, many of which were sold to buy plaster casts for the new museum to be built in Copley Square in Boston. Peale's bust of George Washington and Lucas Cranach's "The Lamentation" (74.28) are among the works that remain in the collection. Janet Comey
The artist; gift of the artist to Mrs. Calahan, Annapolis, Md.; to Mrs. Ridgeley, Washington, D.C.; to Charles Sumner, Boston; to MFA, 1874, gift of Charles Sumner.
Bequest of Charles Sumner