Five military portraits highlight how George Washington's image came to define the American cause in the Revolutionary War.

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Portraits of General Washington

As commander in chief, George Washington became the best-known leader of the American Revolution and his image embodied the American cause. Americans and Europeans alike eagerly sought portraits of him to hang in their homes, palaces, and government buildings. Artists’ portrayals of him captured his features in different manners, but all clearly presented his distinctive and symbolic appearance.

The plainness of his uniform, lacking embellishments such as lace, embroidery, and extensive gold braid, appeared democratic, making him look “exactly like that of his troops,” according to a French diplomat. As the war progressed, Washington changed the uniform to better express his commitment to the cause. After 1780, he discontinued the use of the blue sash, a device indicating his rank as commander in chief, because of its similarity to sashes worn by nobility in European orders of chivalry.

George Washington after the Battle of Princeton

Painted by Charles Willson Peale

Oil on canvas, 1780.

In 1779, the governing body of Pennsylvania commissioned Charles Willson Peale to paint a full-length portrait of General Washington. The canvas depicted a victorious Washington on the battlefield at Princeton, and was such a success that Peale was flooded with orders for replicas. This three-quarter-length version was painted for statesman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey. This portrait still depicts Washington wearing the blue sash, but also shows epaulets with three stars, which would ultimately replace the sash.

Bequest of Jane J. Boudinot, 1927 (H-17)

George Washington

Painted by Jean-Baptiste Le Paon

Oil on canvas, ca. 1779

This distinguished portrait of George Washington was created for the French prince Louis Joseph and was later owned by King Louis-Philippe I. Exhibited in Paris in 1782, this was the first portrait of Washington shown publicly in Europe. The French artist did not paint from life, but based his likeness on portraits by Charles Willson Peale. The French artist included a black stock or neckband that, while typical of soldiers’ uniforms, was not worn by Washington.

Purchased with funds donated by Mr. and Mrs. Guerin Todd, Mr. and Mrs. Donald L. Segur, Mrs. C. Lalor Burdick, Vice Regent Emerita for Delaware, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel M. V. Hamilton, Mrs. Lyle C. Roll, Pendleton Woolen Mills, Mrs. Richard Alexander, Vice Regent for Rhode Island, and Mr. Alexander, 1992 (M-3660)

George Washington at Princeton

Painted by Charles Peale Polk

Oil on canvas, ca. 1793

Taking advantage of the high demand for images of Washington in the 1790s, Charles Peale Polk created this version of George Washington at the battlefield at Princeton. The nephew of painter Charles Willson Peale, Polk adapted his uncle’s portraits of Washington to create a simplified picture that was both attractive and affordable for his clientele of middle-class Americans. He ultimately painted over 50 versions of Washington’s portrait.

Purchased with funds donated by Donald and Nancy de Laski, Adrienne Mars, Vice Regent for Wyoming, A. Alfred Taubman Acquisition Endowment Fund, and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, 2009 (M-4853)

George Washington

Painted by Joseph Wright

Oil on canvas, 1783

Painted from life at Washington’s headquarters in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, this striking likeness records a highly significant moment in George Washington’s career. At the time, a war-weary Washington was awaiting confirmation of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which would officially end the Revolutionary War, and planning his retirement to Mount Vernon. A few weeks later, he appeared before Congress to resign his military commission. This virtually unprecedented relinquishment of power validated civilian authority and prompted King George III to salute Washington as “the greatest man in the world.”

Purchased with funds provided by Karen Buchwald Wright, 2016 (M-5402/A-B)

General George Washington at Trenton

Probably made in Columbia, South Carolina. After a painting by John Trumbull

Mixed media (wool, silk, beads, and paint on canvas), needlework, ca. 1850–1865

Unlike the other portraits in this exhibit, this one was created with a needle and yarns instead of a paint brush and pigments. This technique, called berlinwork, used patterns printed on graph paper to chart the stitches for recreating famous paintings. The scene depicts George Washington amidst the tumult of battle, as British forces threatened to retake Trenton, New Jersey, in January 1777. This example was removed by a Union soldier from a burning house in Columbia, South Carolina, during the Civil War. Beads give added texture and shine to Washington’s spurs, the horse’s bit, and other metal elements.

Courtesy of Dr. Stephanie Bennett-Smith

"I am well acquainted with Gen.l W. who is a man of very few words but when he speaks it is on purpose [and] what I have often admired in him is he [has] always avoided saying anything of the actions in which he has engaged in the last war. [H]e is uncommonly modest, very industrious - prudent."

- Charles Willson Peale to Edmond Jennings, August 1775

Exhibit Details

Five military portraits highlight how George Washington's image came to define the American cause in the Revolutionary War.

Exhibit Dates

On display through spring 2017.

Buy Tickets

Entry to the museum is included with general admission.

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