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The Green Tree: Highlights from the Collection of the Mutual Assurance Company of Philadelphia - April 2007
 
 
painting
 
Rembrandt Peale
(1778–1860)
George Washington, 1854
Oil on canvas, 30 × 25 inches
Formerly inscribed on the reverse (prior to relining): “Painted by Rembrandt Peale,/in 1854,/From his Original Portrait,/of 1795.”
Provenance: Rembrandt Peale; his second wife Harriet Cany Peale (c. 1782–1869); her nephew Charles Paine Herring; to his wife, to their daughter Louise Cany Herring, 1927; purchased by the Mutual Assurance Company of Philadelphia, 1932.
References: Garvan and Wojtowicz 1977, 60–61, illus.
RS 6220


Rembrandt Peale based this portrait of George Washington on his monumental exhibition picture, Washington, the Patriae Pater, which he completed in 1824.1 By the time that work was purchased for the U.S. Capitol in 1834, Peale had created a slightly larger replica, which he displayed in a variety of public and private venues.2 The pamphlet the artist wrote to accompany these displays described how he had labored tirelessly to create the most truthful likeness of the nation’s hero. It was, he told viewers, an inspired synthesis of his own 1795 life portrait and the life sittings taken by his father, Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), their competitor, Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), and the French neoclassical sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828).3 The pamphlet also included testimonials from individuals who had known Washington attesting to the portrait’s fidelity to his appearance and its strong projection of his noble and heroic character.

Peale began a focused production of small-scale variations of his Washington portrait in 1846, when he advertised in his latest exhibition pamphlet that he “now had time” and was “prepared to execute copies . . . in Military Costume.” These pictures “would be delivered in the order of subscription, after payment. The cost was $100 without the frame.”4 Between 1846 and his death in 1860, Peale received a steady stream of commissions for these replicas, which he painted in either military uniform or the original “senatorial” dress. Although the portrait head in these smaller works remained consistent with the original, Peale softened the intense illusionism of the 1824 portrait and eliminated the elaborate, symbolic sculpted stonework. While most of the small portraits included simplified stone ovals, some did not. This may have been a choice available to purchasers.5

Many of Peale’s commissions for his replicas were a response to his popular lecture, “Washington and His Portraits,” which he launched at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1854 and presented in towns and cities along the East Coast until he fell seriously ill in Cambridge, Massachusetts in December 1859. The date and provenance of the portrait considered here places it squarely in the context not only of Peale’s graphic projects of the mid-1850s, but also in the context of his lecture, which Peale “illustrated” with his copies of Washington portraits by other artists in tandem with his own. Whether this smaller picture was part of his display or not, Peale surely had one of his Washington replicas available to assure his audience that they, too, could possess greatness.6

—Carol Eaton Soltis

Notes

1. Carol Eaton Hevner, “The Ultimate Washington Portrait: The Patriae Pater,” in “The Paintings of Rembrandt Peale: Character and Conventions,” in Lillian B. Miller, In Pursuit of Fame, Rembrandt Peale, 1778–1860 (Washington, D.C., and Seattle: National Portrait Gallery in association with the University of Washington Press, 1992), 279–282. See also Carol Eaton Hevner, Rembrandt Peale 1778–1860: A Life in the Arts, with a biographical essay by Lillian B. Miller (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1985), 66–67, 86–91. The dimensions of the picture in the U.S. Capitol are 69 1/2 × 52 inches.

2. This picture is now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; its dimensions are 72 1/2 × 54 inches.

3. The Peales produced many Washington images in many formats and genres. However, Charles Willson Peale had the opportunity for the most life sittings. His brother, James Peale, and Charles’s sons, Raphaelle and Rembrandt, were given an opportunity for one life sitting with Washington in Philadelphia in the fall of 1795. Charles Peale Polk also produced many Washington images, but these were not from life. For Charles Willson Peale’s numerous Washington portraits and several sittings, see Charles Coleman Sellers, Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale, Transactions of The American Philosophical Society 42, part 1 (Philadelphia, 1952), 216–243.

4. Rembrandt Peale, “Portrait of Washington” (Philadelphia, 1846), 14. These smaller portraits typically measure in the range of 30 × 25 inches.

5. This portrait lacks the fictive stone oval, but the image is contained in an inscribed oval and placed in a frame with a gilded oval insert. This is the same framing form used by Charles Willson Peale for his hero portraits in his Philadelphia Museum. The oval format derives from antiquity and traditionally indicates that the subject within the oval is held in honor.

6. For a discussion of Peale’s Washington Lecture see Carol Eaton Soltis, “The Sublime and the Sentimental: The Artist as His Own Exhibition-Piece,” in “‘In Sympathy with the Heart’: Rembrandt Peale, an American Artist and the Traditions of European Art.” (diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2000), 431–480.


  


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