You knew this one, didn’t you! And if you’re an American, you’re probably quite familiar with this famous portrait of a young George Washington.
Today – February 22 — we celebrate Washington’s birthday, or at least, when I was a child we celebrated this day. Because Abraham Lincoln — our 15th president and one of the greatest men in American history — was born on February 12, someone decided we should simply combine the two holidays into “President’s Day” which we now celebrate on the third Monday of February each year. According to some, it’s intended to be a day on which we honor not only Washington and Lincoln, but all the men who have served as US President.
Enough of history! But, before we get back to art, I should point out that the portrait shown here by Peale was painted in 1772, before our American Revolution. It shows a “young George Washington” as a First Colonel in the Virginia Regiment. He was always a bit miffed that he could never obtain an actual commission as part of the British Army, but again, enough of history. You know, of course, that the colonies eventually broke free from England and Washington went on to become Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and to later become our first president. Stop me now, all right? Otherwise I’ll go on and on, boring you with facts about Washington’s life, his military career throughout the French and Indian War — also known as the Seven Years War, despite the fact that it lasted for nine years — his role in the American Revolution, and his terms in office. You don’t want to hear all of it, I know, so, yes, stop me now.
Let’s talk instead about Charles Willson Peale. The portrait shown here, by the way, is the earliest known portrait of Washington. You can read more about the painting at the Mount Vernon website.
Peale discovered he had a talent for painting, especially for portraiture, so it was arranged for him to study with several established artists. He also had a strong interest in the political events of the day, as well as a deep appreciation for history. These interests led him to Philadelphia, which was the capital of the fledgling government in 1776. There he painted portraits of the leading figures in America and from overseas.
He also helped to raise troops for the Revolution and he eventually gained the rank of captain in the Pennsylvania militia. Peale fought in several battles. Even as a soldier, he continued to paint, often doing miniature portraits of officers, then later making larger paintings from these small works. From 1779-1780 he served in the Pennsylvania state assembly, then following his public service career, he returned to painting as a full-time occupation.
Although Peale is probably best known for his paintings of Washington — he painted nearly 60 portraits of our first president — he also did portraits of many other prominent men of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.
Washington sat for Peale a total of seven times. Peale then used these sittings as references to complete many additional works. In January 2005, his full-length portrait of Washington at Princeton (1779) sold for over twenty-one million dollars, setting a record for the highest price paid for an American portrait.
Another member of the Peale family — Rembrandt Peale, son of Charles — also painted a portrait of our first president. In 1795, he asked his father to arrange a sitting with Washington, and Charles did so, knowing this could be a help to his son’s career as an artist. This work is in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Throughout 2022, my “word of the year” is CELEBRATE, so even though I celebrated President’s Day yesterday, I’m going to go right ahead and celebrate Washington’s Birthday today. My celebration began with hoe cakes, Washington’s favorite breakfast. It’s what we call cornbread today, and I have a great keto recipe if anyone wants it.