19th-Century Oil Portrait of George Washington, after Rembrandt Peale

This is a decorously painted, 19th century portrait of George Washington, after Rembrandt Peale.  This likeness was painted by an unknown artist of the American School. An oil on paper, laid on panel, this depiction is closest to the 1854 portrait by Peale, currently in the collection of the de Young museum in San Francisco. Washington is depicted in a bust length profile, in black senatorial dress. 

Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) was born into a highly artistic family and was taught painting by his father, the notable artist Charles Wilson Peale. In July 1787, when Rembrandt was only 17 years old, his father introduced the young painter to George Washington. While in Philadelphia attending the Constitutional Convention, Washington agreed to three sittings with both Charles and Rembrandt, during which Rembrandt labored over a life-study. After the third and final sitting with Washington in 1795, Rembrandt Peale hurried off to Charleston, South Carolina, where he finished and made at least ten copies of his portrait. 

The meeting left an indelible impression on the younger Peale, and over the next twenty years and numerous sketches and paintings, Rembrandt tasked himself with perfecting and capturing the elusive grandeur and stoic likeness of Washington. Taking elements from his own 1787 life study, but also from the Gilbert Stuart 1796 Athenaeum portrait, his father’s portraits, and the more neoclassical 1785 Houdon bust, Rembrandt slowly crafted his depiction of Washington. In a January 1824 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Rembrandt writes, “…never was a Portrait undertaken with greater zeal And this is heightened to the extreme point by the conviction tho that this great work can be accomplished by no one but myself as I am the youngest of those to whom Washington sat, & the only one who is not prejudiced in favour of his own portrait.” 

Not long after that letter, Rembrandt completed what would be the first of many portraits of the great founding father. His 1824 oil-on-canvas Patriae Pater (Father of his Country) was a painting of Washington that was as much icon as likeness. Peale painted Washington in bust pose, facing left and framed by the massive stone oval that gave rise to the title "Porthole" portrait. Equal parts excited and nervous by the completion of his twenty-year portrait, Rembrandt collected more than 20 testimonials from individuals who had directly known Washington; he later published them in a pamphlet titled Portrait of Washington. The comments and praise collected include such glowing descriptions as those of Chief Justice John Marshall: “The likeness in features is striking, and the Character of the whole face is preserved & exhibited with wonderful Accuracy. It is more Washington himself than any Portrait of him I have ever seen.”

Peale exhibited his Patriæ Pater portrait in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. In the spring of 1827, he drew a lithograph based on the painting, in the Boston studio of William and John Pendleton. Patriæ Pater traveled throughout Europe on exhibition. In 1832, Congress, although reluctant to spend money on art in the early years of the nation, was prompted by the Centennial of George Washington’s birth to purchase Patriæ Pater from Rembrandt Peale for $2,000. After its purchase the painting was hung at the gallery level in the Senate Chamber. 

Rembrandt then began the task of copying the painting and creating numerous variations, displaying Washington in both military uniform, as seen in Patriæ Pater, and in senatorial dress, as seen in this portrait. The Washington copies were produced in an almost methodical fashion during the 1840s and 1850s, at a time when Washington was a keen subject of national interest. In his traveling lecture series titled “Washington and his Portrait,” which he delivered numerous times to considerable success in the 1850s, Rembrandt proclaimed that it was his vocation “to multiply the Countenance of Washington.” Peale lectured on the importance of proliferating portraits of Washington, convinced he was fulfilling a need for inexpensive and accurate images of America’s first president.

This oil-on-canvas is a testament to the enduring impact of Rembrandt Peale’s likenesses on the public’s memory of Washington, as well as the hunger to own a depiction of the great leader, commander, and first President of our nation. 

CONDITION: 

Oil on paper laid on panel, framed in the oval. Previously retouched to cheeks, eye sockets, left side of chin, neck and hair; scattered retouching to jacket and background. Previously mended horizontal splits.

Painting has been reframed. Painting is artfully and archivally presented with a black silk porthole-style top mat and a custom-built black and gold filleted frame. Framed dimensions 36” H x 31” W x 3” D.

 




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