Between 1772 and 1798, twenty-four artists painted George Washington. Charles Willson Peale was the first artist to interpret Washington on canvas or in any other media. In total, Peale painted seven life portraits of George Washington, the first in 1772 and the last in 1795, the only time he painted him as President of the United States. Peale's cabinet-size picture measures seven by six inches.
The portrait was mathematically reduced from Peale's large canvasses that measured approximately thirty by twenty-five inches. The reduced scale conveys a quality of intimacy, yet the work is large enough to make an ideal commemorative portrait of America's first President. Peale's cabinet portraits had the virtue of being the work of an accomplished painter, but were less expensive than his full-size portraits. These works were frequently exhibited on small easels for close viewing or in cabinets with other curios.
Peale painted his cabinet portraits of Washington between 1795 and 1800, a period where two events of great significance occurred that would have created a demand for presidential portraits. In 1797 George Washington retired from the presidency, leaving a firmly-established federal form of government in place. His death two-and-a-half years later coincided with the close of the eighteenth century and sent the nation into deep mourning.
Peale's perspective drew from a seasoned appreciation of Washington's achievements and a desire to present the image of a leader, in order to reinforce feelings of national pride and confidence. Peale presented a poised, serious, but tranquil executive. Washington's deep-set blue eyes gaze beyond the viewer to some distant point. The face is smooth and clear with good color. Peale drew Washington's mouth free of any suggestion of strain, presenting a very linear image of President Washington against a reddish-brown background where the delicate pile of his black velvet coat is clearly visible. Washington's linen stock and lace jabot are white and crisply drawn. Although idealized, Charles Willson Peale's cabinet portraits were far closer to the reality of George Washington's appearance and demeanor than many other renditions produced at time.
Carroll, John Alexander and Mary Wells Ashworth. George Washington, Vol. 7: First in Peace. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957.
Sellers, Charles Cohnan. Portraits and Miniatures By Charles Willson Peale. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1952.
The Peale Family Papers