The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are home to a breathtaking range of folk, fine, and decorative art. Uncover the history behind beautiful objects in masterfully curated exhibitions in our series “Amazing Stories. Beautifully Told.”
Today we’re looking at a portrait of George Washington currently on view in “Early American Faces,” an exhibition in the newly constructed Ronald L. and Mary J. Hurst Gallery at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art and remarkable objects that are useful as well as beautiful.
What is it?
From the moment you step inside the Art Museums, you catch a glimpse of the Foundation’s iconic portrait of George Washington.
At nearly nine feet tall, the commanding likeness of our nation’s first president, then Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, welcomes you from the end of the building’s grand concourse. The life-size portrayal was rendered in 1780 by the country’s preeminent portraitist, Charles Willson Peale, and represents one of the most important paintings of the American Revolutionary period.
What’s the story?
“Deeply sensible how much the liberty, safety and happiness of America. . . [was owed] to His Excellency General Washington,” the governing body of Pennsylvania commissioned a portrait of George Washington to display in its Council Chamber (see above). In 1779, the Supreme Executive Council hired the well-known painter Charles Willson Peale to create a public likeness that would honor the commander’s leadership and service in the Philadelphia campaigns.
In late January, Washington posed for the artist in Philadelphia, who later travelled to the battleground sites of Trenton and Princeton so that he could prepare preliminary sketches for details and the background of the painting. In addition to specific references to the recent victories such as fallen British flags, captured Hessian soldiers, and the buildings at Princeton, the artist incorporated into the painting generic symbols of war that reinforced Washington as a triumphant leader.
The likeness was an immediate success and before it was even complete, Peale received requests for replica copies of the painting from Washington’s friends and associates, like Charles Carter of Shirley Plantation in Virginia, who likely commissioned Colonial Williamsburg’s portrait (see above). In addition to private individuals, orders were also made for and given to foreign heads of state who were colonial allies in the war.
Peale’s use of the state portrait format, typically reserved for likenesses of British and European royalty, was a powerful artistic tool and universally understood. In particular, the similarity of Washington’s likeness to that of England’s reigning monarch, King George III, would have been immediately recognized and the political message made clear: Washington as leader of the colonial forces is ready, willing, and able to take on the British empire. Although it would take another three years before the surrender at Yorktown, Peale’s portrait was a bold statement that underscored the military hero’s determination and resolve in leading the colonies to impending victory.
Why it matters:
Many scholars consider the Peale portraits of Washington at Princeton to be the first official state portraits because, in part, they were commissioned as public art. Colonial Williamsburg’s canvas was privately owned by the Carter family and resided at the family’s residence on the James River near Richmond, since the early nineteenth century. In addition to its history and role as a local document from the Revolutionary period, the painting is also important as one of the first objects acquired for the Foundation.
See for yourself
You can find this portrait of Washington and tens of thousands of objects in the online collection here. We also invite you to see this remarkable painting in person at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg and discover more amazing stories, beautifully told.
Laura Pass Barry is the Juli Grainger curator of paintings, drawings, and sculpture. She is particularly interested in early American portraits and the stories that they tell.
Colonial Williamsburg is the largest living history museum in the world. Witness history brought to life on the charming streets of the colonial capital, plus, explore our newly expanded and updated Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg featuring the nation’s premier folk art collection, plus the best in British and American fine and decorative arts from 1670–1840. Check out sales and special offers to plan your visit.