This magnificent portrait presents the ideals of a nation fervently fighting for its independence in the persona of George Washington. Executed in the midst of the struggle, the work celebrates the victories at Trenton and Princeton, yet also indicates that much hangs in the balance and that there are battles ahead. In an allegorical sense, the epic portrait reminds the viewer that the struggle for liberty is never over, a sentiment that resonated with its later owners. Sent by the artist, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), to Spain soon after its completion, this rendition of the American General was intended to promote the American cause abroad and coincided with Spain's formal entry into the conflict. Thus, this portrait can be viewed as one of the earliest emblems of American diplomacy, conceived and executed before the triumph of independence.
CHARLES WILLSON PEALE: ARTIST, SOLDIER AND PATRIOT
Charles Willson Peale was born in Chestertown, Maryland in 1741 and after a brief education was apprenticed to a saddler, with whom he developed skills in a variety of trades. Peale quickly earned a reputation as an adept artisan and also pursued an early interest in art, completing many sketches of family members and friends. In 1760, the young Peale traded a saddle with the artist John Hesselius in exchange for painting lessons. Hesselius, who lived in nearby Annapolis, provided Peale with his first formal training and encouraged him to develop the fundamentals of portraiture. Five years later, on a visit to Boston, Peale met John Singleton Copley, who encouraged the aspiring artist to explore work with portrait miniatures. Shortly thereafter, Peale secured several commissions, which were sufficient to provide financial stability and enable him to become a full-time professional portrait painter. By 1768, Peale's success impressed several patrons who granted him money to travel to London for study with the famed American artist, Benjamin West, who presided over the Royal Academy. The time spent abroad proved significant for Peale, who greatly developed his technique and style while in England. After two years in London, Peale returned to Annapolis to pursue his own style of painting and a career as a portrait artist. As Peale's approach evolved, he continued to move away from the classical genre of history painting and realized in his own work a narrative and more intimate approach to historical portraiture.
In America, Peale achieved rapid success, even while facing considerable competition from other portrait painters, including his former teacher Hesselius. Peale was quickly distinguished by his meticulous handling of paint, the smooth layered style of English painting he had learned in London, and for his ability to capture the detailed costumes of the day and the sitter's individual personage. In a letter to a friend, Peale wrote that "since my return to America, the encouragement and patronage I have met with exceed my most sanguine hopes, not only in Maryland, which is my native place, but also in Philadelphia I have considerable business.The people here have a growing taste for the arts, and are becoming more and more fond of encouraging their progress among them."(4)
These patrons included America's first President. Peale first became acquainted with Washington on a three week visit to Mount Vernon in 1772, where he painted portraits of both George Washington and his wife Martha Custis.(5)
Upon the outbreak of war, Peale hoped for an early resolution of the conflict, but as events intensified he proved to be an ardent patriot. A letter he wrote in August of 1775 reveals his initial ambivalence over the conflict, as well as his admiration for George Washington:
I rejoice that the times have allowed me to do so much, but alas! I fear I shall no more to paint, and I well remember your once telling me that when my brush should faid [sic], that I must take the Musket. I believe that you foresaw all that has since happened...I am well acquainted with Genl. Washington who is a Man of very few words but when he speaks it is to purpose. What I have often admired in him is he always [sic] avoided saying anything of the actions in which he was Engaged in the last war. He is uncommonly Modest, very Industrious and prudent.(6)
Later that year, he moved to Philadelphia, where his painting business continued to thrive. He enlisted in the local militia in August; three months later, he was made First Lieutenant and prepared for battle. Mechanically minded, he had previously improved his rifle with the addition of a telescopic sight and, with this firearm and brown uniform, set out with his fellow troops to join Washington's forces in early December, 1776.(7) Painted over a year later, Peale rendered his own likeness in his solder's uniform in which he carefully depicts a gold braid in his hat, a reference to his subsequent promotion to captain (fig. 5). During the weeks before the battle of Trenton, Peale was able to combine his art while serving his country. Keeping his paints and brushes close at hand, he became proficient in executing portraits, painting at least two hundred miniatures for soldiers to send home to their families. He was particularly fond of the practical advantage miniatures offered and the ease in which he could transport his supplies at a moment's notice should the militia be ordered to march.
Under the command of his friend, Colonel John Cadwalader, Peale was among the forces unable to cross the Delaware that fateful night of December 26. However, though he missed the action in Trenton, he was in the midst of battle on the morning of January 3, when American forces led by George Washington encountered Mawhood's brigade (fig. 3) and forced the surrender of the British on the grounds of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). The day's events were recorded by Peale in his diary:
..the Sun had risen just before we See Prinstown we marched on quick and met some of the Troops retreating in confusion I carried my Platoon to the Top of the Hill & fired, tho' very unwillingly, for I thought the Enemy rather too far off and then retreated, Loading. We Returned to the charge, & fired a 2d time & Retreated as before. The 3d time coming up, the Enemy began to Retreat We now advanced toward the Town Amediately on the Artilery firing, a Number [of the enemy] that had formed near the College began to disperse, and amediately a Flag was sent, and we huzared Victory.(8)
Thus, not only a witness, Peale was an active participant in the Battle of Princeton, the setting for his spectacular portrait of Washington.
THE 1779 COMMISSION
Two years later, with the disposition of the Revolutionary War still uncertain, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania commissioned Peale to paint from life a portrait of George Washington. Rendered in several closely-related versions, this patriotic image established Peale as one of the premier portrait painters in Colonial America, and it remains one of the most celebrated images of Washington by any artist.
On January 18, 1779, the Council resolved:
Whereas, The wisest, freest and bravest nations, in the most virtuous times, have endeavored to perpetuate the memory of those who have rendered their Country distinguished services, by preserving their resemblances in Statues and Paintings; This Council, deeply sensible how much the liberty, safety and happiness of America is owing to His Excellency General Washington do resolve, That [he] be requested to permit this Council to place his Portrait in the Council Chamber that the contemplation of it may excite others to tread in the same glorious and disinterested steps which lead to public happiness and private honor..and where it will be most agreeable to him for Mr. Peale to attend him.(9)
Washington responded two days later, remarking that though he thought their praises overstated, he would acquiesce to the Council's request. He departed Philadelphia on February 1st, so Peale must have taken the likeness of the General during these ten days. On February 22, he traveled back to the scenes of the battles of Trenton and Princeton where he drew sketches for the background and later finished the work in Philadelphia (fig. 6). The full-length portrait portrays Washington at ease with his arm resting confidently on the barrel of a cannon. The trophy flags of Trenton and Princeton lie at his feet, with the American battle flag waving triumphantly above and in the distant landscape, soldiers march on the horizon at Nassau Hall, the principal building in town.
Thomas Jefferson described Washington as "easy, erect and noble," and, as noted by Graham Hood:
this is the man we see in the full size of life in this great portrait, who stands easily, who meets and holds our eyes, not haughtily, as might be expected of a soldier who had taken the most powerful empire on earth down a notch, but with the sweet taste of victory on his lips and a carefully controlled satisfaction in his face.(10)
The portrait became so popular that even before the original was completed, Peale received numerous orders for replicas. He varied the commissions, painting Washington both full-length and three-quarter length, and variously standing in front of the significant battlefields of Princeton, Trenton and Yorktown. Don Juan de Mirailles, a Cuban gentleman who served as the unofficial representative of Spain, was a friend of Peale's and requested five replicas to be made and sent abroad. Additional envoys leaving for Europe carried other commissioned Washington portraits with them, including one presented to Louis XVI. "Never before," wrote Peale's principal biographer, "had paintings been sent from America to Europe to hang in the palaces of kings."(11) In addition to the portrait offered here, only seven full-length versions are known to survive. One was owned by the New York dealer E.J. Rousuck in 1952 and the other six are all in public institutions (The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (fig. 6), the United States Capital, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Colonial Williamsburg (fig. 7) and Princeton University).
THE BLAIR COLLECTION PORTRAIT OF WASHINGTON
Signed and dated 1779, the Blair Collection portrait was one of Peale's earliest replicas of the original commission and its Spanish provenance places it among those that were intended for an international audience. It is documented in an undated letter written by Peale to William Carmichael (d. 1795), the newly appointed secretary of the American legation to Spain, just before his departure on the frigate Aurore in October, 1779:
I have directed a long packing case for you which contains a whole length of Gen. Washington, begging your favor in putting it into the hands of some person who will sell it on commission.
Should you go immediately to Nantes, Mr. Joshua Johnson I make no doubt will purchase and send me the following articles, but should you go to any other port I must pray your favor to get them purchased, provided that the money arising from the sale of the picture should be sufficient; if otherwise, omit the superfluities.
I wish you a pleasant voyage and am with Respect,
Honored Sir, your very Humble Servt.,
On October 15th, Peale wrote a letter to Edmond Jenings in Paris referring to this portrait. He states that he is sending the work '"as a venture" and hopes 'it will sell for a good price as I am in want of necessaries for painting, and clothing my family.'"(13) Although described by Peale as a "venture," it is possible that it was originally a commissioned work whose patron, for whatever reasons, did not go through with the purchase.(14) Soon after Peale finished the first portrait (fig. 6), Mirailles placed an order for five copies and the following year, died in financial straits. As none of the portraits in this order have been located, it is possible that they were completed but never paid for, making Peale seek other customers. In August, Peale had mentioned to Charles Carroll that he had several likenesses of Washington on hand, one of which "is done for the Spanish Court." If this refers to the Blair Collection portrait, it suggests that it was originally ordered as a diplomatic gift perhaps through a third party such as Mirailles.
Later correspondence between Peale and Carmichael indicates that the portrait had been sold, most likely in Spain, prior to 1782. In that year, Peale wrote to Carmichael inquiring of the status of the "venture," and expressed his wish that if it was still unsold, it should be given to the King of Spain. However, Carmichael had already sold the portrait, although the identity of the purchaser is unknown. Subsequent letters reveal that the proceeds from its sale, $112, reached Peale via a circuitous route over five years later.(15)
In 1918 or shortly before, the portrait was purchased by an agent of P.W. French & Co., antique dealers based in New York, from a Capuchin school (fig. 11) in Lecaroz, a small town in the Basque region in northern Spain. Probably conveyed to the agent at the time of this sale, the portrait's provenance was summarized on the back of a photograph of the work in the papers of Peale scholar and descendant, Charles Coleman Sellers:
It was taken to Spain by the first American Minister. It passed into the collection of the Dukes of Pastrana who bequeathed it to the Order of Capuchinos and it has been purchased from their convent at Lecaroz in the Province of Navarra.(16)
While minor variations on this account have been published, the above version appears to be the earliest recount of the portrait's history and, from verifiable information, the most accurate.(17) Dionisia Maria Vives y Zires (d. 1892), the Duchess of Pastrana (fig. 9) was the primary benefactress of the Capuchin Convent, which was founded in 1888. Her husband, Manuel de Toledo Lesparre (1805-1886), the Duke of Pastrana (fig. 9), had died two years earlier and, assuming it had "passed into" his collection, the portrait was almost certainly inherited from his father, Pedro Alacantara de Toledo y Salm-Salm (1768-1841), the thirteenth Duke of the Infantado (fig. 8).
A prominent political figure, military leader and renowned art collector, the Duke of the Infantado stands as a likely previous owner of this portrait. He hailed from the House of Mendoza, one of the most powerful families of the Spanish nobility and was the eldest son of Pedro de Alacantra de Toledo (1729-1790), the twelfth Duke of the Infantado and his aristocratic German wife, Maria Ana de Salm-Salm (1740-1816). For most of their lives, the couple lived abroad and their son was educated in Paris during the period of the Enlightenment. Fluent in several languages, with a keen interest in a variety of subjects, from art to science and economics, the thirteenth Duke was distinguished among his peers by his cosmopolitan upbringing and worldly outlook. After the death of his father in 1790, he took over the administration of the family estates and, at the same time, pursued a military career, rising to the rank of Brigadier.(18)
The Duke of Infantado was a key figure during the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814), in which Napoleon attempted to conquer Spain. In early 1808, a popular revolt forced King Charles IV to abdicate in favor of his son, Prince Ferdinand, a long trusted friend of the Duke's. Shortly thereafter, all three along with an entourage of Spanish dignitaries were lured into meeting Napoleon in Bayonne, located in France just across the Spanish border. There, Napoleon imprisoned the Prince, now King Ferdinand VII, and forced him to renounce the throne back to his father who promptly ceded his rights to Napoleon. The French army marched through Spain and in early May seized Madrid. There, an uprising on May 2-3, was brutally suppressed by the French, an event immortalized in Francisco de Goya's famous painting, The Third of May, 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid. Soon after, Joseph Napoleon, the Emporer's brother, was named King of Spain. The Duke of Infantado was one of the leaders of the Spanish resistance and commanded a large force in numerous attempts to oust the French invaders. After six years of warfare and assistance from Britain and Portugal, Joseph Napoleon was forced to withdraw and King Ferdinand VII was reinstated. The King was particularly grateful for the Duke's loyalty. During the ensuing years, he appointed the Duke to powerful positions within his government and by the 1820s, the Duke held the highest command after the King.(19)
With his role during the Spanish War of Independence, it seems fitting that the Duke of Infantado would acquire Peale's work celebrating America's similar experience. Written in Spanish, the inscription on the frame reads:
G. Washington was born in Virginia in 1733. He liberated his country from foreign domination, was president twice, renounced absolute power and died.
Based on stylistic grounds, the frame itself appears to date from the early nineteenth century and the reference to Washington's death in the inscription confirms its placement on the painting after 1799. Most notable are the words chosen to honor Washington's accomplishments. By stating that Washington "liberated his country from foreign domination," the author of the inscription highlights the similarities between the Spanish and American Wars and, like Washington, the Duke of Infantado sought to oust those he saw as external threats to his nation's sovereignty. However, the Duke did so as a loyal supporter of the monarchy and the lack of reference, either overt or veiled, to the British crown was undoubtedly intentional. Furthermore, the phrase, "renounced absolute power," may refer to Napoleon's totalitarian regime, the implication being that unlike the French leader, Washington chose to govern his country after a revolution according to democratic principles. Thus, the sentiments of the inscription are in close keeping with attitudes held by the Duke of Infantado and, given the portrait's later possession by his son, he was very likely the owner at the time the painting was placed in its frame. As he was only fourteen in 1782, when the portrait had already been sold by Carmichael, it is highly improbable that he was the first owner. Instead, the Duke most likely acquired it in the early nineteenth century at around the time of or soon after his fight for his own country's War of Independence.
The Duke of Infantado never married, but with Manuela de Lesparre had a son and two daughters out of wedlock. He was particularly fond of his son, Manuel de Lesparre (fig. 9), and in 1825 as a favor to his friend, King Ferdinand VII pronounced Manuel legitimate and added "de Toledo" to his title. This pronouncement complicated the succession of titles and property upon the Duke's death in 1841. Before his death, the Duke had made Manuel his sole heir, but his great-nephew, Pedro de Alcantara Tellez-Giron y Beaufort-Spontin (1810-1844), who would have been the rightful heir if the Duke had died childless, contested the inheritance.(20) As a result, the great-nephew became the fourteenth Duke of Infantado, and Manuel inherited the title of the Duke of Pastrana. The assets of the thirteenth Duke appear to have been divided between the two as both later owned sketches by Rubens that were part of the thirteenth Duke's art collection.(21) The Duke and Duchess of Pastrana (fig. 9) were noted benefactors of religious institutions, donating most of their real estate in Madrid to a Jesuit school. They resided mainly in Paris and it was probably there that the Duchess befriended Father Llevaneras, the founder of the Colegio Nuestra Senora Del Buen Consejo, a Capuchin school in Lecaroz, Spain. The Duchess was the principal benefactor of the school and this portrait of Washington was probably part of a large bequest given after her death in 1892.(22)
The portrait was purchased from P.W. French & Co. in 1919 by Mr. and Mrs. J. Insley Blair. Both held distinct collecting interests; he, Chinese porcelain and she, American antiques (see Christie's New York, Property from the Collection of Mrs. J. Insley Blair, January 21, 2006). Yet this portrait of Washington appears to have been an item deeply treasured by both husband and wife. Upon its publication before Mr. Blair's death in 1940, he is listed as the official owner (see Literature, above); as Mrs. Blair was frequently listed as the owner when examples of her Americana collection were published or exhibited, this citation indicates that the painting not exclusively part of her domain exclusively. Furthermore, the portrait probably had particular significance for Mr. Blair, a graduate of Princeton University, whose grandfather, James Insley Blair (1802-1899), had provided the funds for construction of Blair Hall, one of the University's most recognized buildings. For Mrs. Blair, the portrait was the supreme example among her collection of Washington related material. A descendant of Col. Thomas Knowlton (1740-1776), one of the heroes of the American Revolution, she had a special reverence for George Washington, a figure she regarded as the embodiment of democracy, freedom and order--American ideals so powerfully conveyed by Charles Willson Peale in this portrait.
(1) David McCullough, 1776 (New York, 2005), p. 263.
(2) Cited in McCullough, p. 269.
(3) Richard M. Ketchum, The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton (New York: Doubleday, 1973), p. 337.
(4) J.T. Flexner, "The Ingenious Mr. Peale: Charles Willson Peale," America's Old Masters, p. 189.
(5) Peale's 1772 portrait of Washington is now in the Washington-Custis-Lee Collection, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia.
(6) Letter, Peale to Edmond Jenings, August 29, 1775, cited in Sellers 1939, pp. 121-122.
(7) Charles Coleman Sellers, The Artist of the Revolution: The Early Life of Charles Willson Peale (Hebron, CT, 1939), pp. 128-139.
(8) January 3, 1777, Diary of Peale, cited in Sellers 1939, pp. 149-150.
(9) Cited in Charles Coleman Sellers, Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale (Philadelphia, 1952), pp. 226-227.
(10) Graham Hood, "Easy, Erect and Noble," The Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation" (Summer 2001).
(11) Sellers 1952, p. 226.
(12) Ibid., p. 228.
(13) Ibid., p. 228.
(14) Mantle and Fielding state that the Blair Collection portrait "had been ordered from Peale by Congress but that body took no action on the matter and when Peale found himself with the picture on his hands he conceived the idea of selling it abroad and thus gave it to Carmichael in the summer of 1779 to sell in Spain" (Mantle and Fielding, p. 35). However, no sources are cited and in his more comprehensive study, Sellers does not include this information; Mantle and Fielding may have may have confused the Blair Collection portrait with that now at the United States Capitol (see Sellers, p. 228).
(15) Sellers 1952, p. 229.
(16) The Charles Coleman Sellers Papers, American Philosophical Society (Mss Coll 3, series IV). The typed label on the back of the photograph is hand-inscribed "French & Co.," indicating the photograph and source of the history came from the dealers themselves.
(17) Mantle and Fielding imply that the painting was sold directly to the Duke of Pastrana by Carmichael, an account repeated by Sellers (Mantle and Fielding, p. 35; Sellers 1952, p. 229).
(18) Salvador de Moxo, "El Duque del Infantado Don Pedro Alcantara de Toledo y Salm-Salm," Hispania, vol. 37, no. 137 (1977), pp. 569-574.
(19) Ibid., pp. 577-581.
(20) Ibid., pp. 597-599.
(21) See http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibits/rubens/exhibition/myth5detail2. html.
(22) Eulogio Zudaire Huarte, Lecaroz: Colegio "Nuestra Senora Del Buen Consejo" (1989); http://www.diariodenoticias.com/ediciones/20040411/cultura/d11cul1003.p hp.