Born in Princeton, Massachusetts, in 1761, Edward Savage was a self-taught painter and engraver. After working briefly as a goldsmith, by the early 1780s Savage was painting commissioned copies of portraits of prominent Bostonians originally painted by John Singleton Copley. In 1789, Harvard University sent the aspiring artist to paint a portrait of then-president George Washington.
This early connection to Washington defined Savage's career. He painted at least seven portraits of Washington and two of Martha Washington. Undoubtedly his most famous work, The Washington Family, was the only contemporary painting to depict the first president at Mount Vernon.1
In 1791, Savage traveled to London to engrave and publish his initial portraits of Washington. There he produced a handful of prints and worked on his canvas for The Washington Family. Based on multiple sittings with members of the Washington family both before and after his time in London, the ambitious group portrait depicts George and Martha Washington, Martha's grandchildren (Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis), and slave Christopher Sheels around a table at Mount Vernon. Pierre Charles L'Enfant's plan for the new capitol at Washington rests on the table at the center of the picture, while columns and swags frame Mount Vernon's Potomac River view in the background.
By depicting Washington dressed in his military uniform surrounded by his family and with his hand resting on evidence of his greatest presidential achievement, The Washington Family echoes the comparison between Washington and the Roman general Cincinnatus so familiar to late eighteenth-century Americans.2 Upon his return to the United States in 1794, Savage married Sarah Seaver, completed his group portrait of the Washingtons, and immediately set to work exhibiting and engraving the large-scale painting. Washington himself ordered four copies, hanging one in the family dining room at Mount Vernon.
The majority of the approximately 100 surviving paintings attributed to Savage are portraits; however, around 1807 he produced a number of watercolor landscapes, likely studies for a series of engravings.3 Sometime between 1787 and 1791, Savage visited Mount Vernon and painted two small canvases of the east and west fronts of the house. These detailed oil paintings are the earliest known images of the plantation, were widely exhibited during Savage’s lifetime, and most likely inspired a host of other early views.4
At the turn of the century, the enterprising Savage was also the proprietor of some of the earliest art galleries in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, where he exhibited his own work, other Americans’ pictures, paintings and prints by European and old master artists, and natural history specimens.5 Savage died at his Princeton farm in 1817. While his abilities as a painter and engraver have been questioned by historians of American art since the mid-nineteenth century, The Washington Family remains one of the most popular images of Washington.6
Lydia Mattice Brandt, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina
1. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Art Inventories Catalog, accessed June 27, 2012, FTP Address: http://siris-artinventories.si.edu.
2. Maurie D. McInnis, "The Most Famous Plantation of All," in The Plantation in American Art, eds. Angela D. Mack and Stephen G. Hoffus (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 7-8. For a general explanation of the comparison between Washington and the Roman Cincinnatus, see Gary Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1984).
3. Ellen G. Miles, "Edward Savage" in American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century, by Ellen G. Miles, Patricia Burda, Cynthia J. Mills, and Leslie Kaye Reinhardt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 145.
4. Carol Borchert Cadou, The George Washington Collection: Fine and Decorative Arts at Mount Vernon (NY: Hudson Hills Press, 2006), 206; Lydia Mattice Brandt, "Re-living Mount Vernon: Replicas and Memories of America’s Most Famous House" (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 2011), 35-6.
6. William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, vol. 1 (1834; reprint, edited by Frank W. Bayley and Charles E. Goodspeed, Boston: C. E. Goodspeed & Co., 1918), 350; Charles Henry Hart, Edward Savage: Painter and Engraver and His Unfinished Copper-Plate of "The Congress Voting Independence" (Cambridge, Mass: The University Press, 1905), 350; Edgar P. Richardson, American Paintings and Related Pictures in The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1986), 76; Scott E. Casper, "First First Family: Seventy Years with Edward Savage's The Washington Family," Imprint 24, no. 2 (Autumn 1999): 2-15.
Casper, Scott E. "First First Family: Seventy Years with Edward Savage's The Washington Family." Imprint 24, no. 2 (Autumn 1999): 2-15.
Dresser, Louisa. "Edward Savage, 1761-1817." Art in America 40, no. 4 (1952): 155-212.
Hart, Charles Henry. Edward Savage: Painter and Engraver and His Unfinished Copper-Plate of ‘The Congress Voting Independence.' Cambridge, Mass: The University Press, 1905.
Miles, Ellen G. "Edward Savage" and "The Washington Family." American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century, eds. Ellen G. Miles, Patricia Burda, Cynthia J. Mills, and Leslie Kaye Reinhardt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Richarson, Edgar P. American Paintings and Related Pictures in The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1986.