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The last half of eighteenth-century America was a turbulent period filled with social and political upheaval. Many political and military leaders offered a variety of solutions, but it was the daily discourse by the citizenry that ultimately decided whether a national spirit would exist and what its character would be.
Portraits and contemporary scenes of the Revolutionary War and its leaders, various farmsteads, and the region's developing cities were visual embodiments of the values and mores of the day. Charles Willson Peale—artist, Maryland native, radical patriot, inventor, and naturalist—was one figure who helped shape American self-perception. Peale was the first to provide authentic images of George Washington as well as other Revolutionary War heroes. Whether depicting a planter family or military leader, Peale captured accurate, straightforward likenesses of his subjects, posed within their own setting. His seven sittings during Washington's lifetime are at once an elegant record of Washington's professional growth as well as documentation of an emerging national spirit.
Reverend Jonathan Boucher, parson at St. Anne's Church in Annapolis and tutor of John Parke Custis, first informed Washington about the talented young Peale who was a local artist living in Annapolis. Peale accompanied Custis to Mount Vernon on May 18, 1772 and stayed a fortnight to paint miniatures of Martha Washington and her children, as well as an oil of George Washington in his Virginia militia uniform, reminiscent of his participation in the French and Indian War.
In the spring of 1776 Peale moved his family to Philadelphia where he immediately enlisted in the Pennsylvania militia. During the next several years Peale had the opportunity to personally observe General Washington in a variety of situations, including when Washington conferred with Congress in Philadelphia to discuss war strategy, during the Battle of Princeton where Peale himself was a participant, and while painting Washington during the tense hours at his Pennsylvania headquarters.
Peale painted likenesses of Washington in a variety of mediums, but one of the most renowned is his oil on canvas commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania on January 18, 1779, to be hung in the council chamber. Peale made several replicas of the highly successful 1779 painting with its fallen British and Hessian flags at Washington's feet and British prisoners marching past Nassau Hall. Peale's copies provided Europe with its first authentic likenesses of America's leader.
Peale's portraits of Washington from life showing the leader resigning from the military, as President of the Constitutional Convention, and as President of the United States were artistic successes but not financial ones during the economic uncertainties of the postwar period. Peale's portrait gallery of heroes was housed in his natural history museum, a project that increasingly absorbed much of his time. Washington was an annual subscriber to the museum and contributed two golden Chinese pheasants upon their demise, originally gifts to Washington from the Marquis de Lafayette.
Peale continued to be involved in civic and public art throughout his life, and his enthusiasm and ideals reflected the revolutionary generation of which he was a part. The fact that Peale's straightforward image of Washington was popularized by the public indicated the national character preferred by the populace and the leader they would choose in 1789.
Richardson, Edgar P. et al., Charles Willson Peale and His World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1983.
Sellers, Charles Coleman. Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1952.
Shadwell, Wendy J., "The Portrait Engravings ofCharles Willson Peale," in Eighteenth-Century Prints in Colonial America, ed. by Joan D. Dolmetsch. Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1979.