This portrait of George Washington was likely made in 1795 by Swedish painter Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, a talented academician who had been appointed “First Painter” to the King of Sweden.
This depiction of Washington, with its exceedingly direct gaze, conveys an unusual sense of vitality not found in other portraits of the period. Of six Washington canvases the artist produced, two of them--including this work--remained unfinished, and three were in the artist’s possession at the time of his death. While the demand for contemporary Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of Washington was enormous, Wertmüller’s paintings were perhaps considered too academic and European to be fashionable.
A bust-length and three-quarters turned portrait of George Washington in civilian dress, lit from the proper right. He wears a black velvet coat and a white stock with many intricately-painted horizontal gathers. Washington’s jabot is not fully shown in lace, but is underpainted in a dark taupe color. The face is finely executed with many variations in flesh tone—rosy pink at the cheeks, paler around the eyes, and darkening along the jowls and in the mustache and beard area. There are slight wrinkles at the forehead, and there is a suggestion of a dimple at the chin. The lips bear a very slight smile. Washington’s blue eyes have enlarged pupils, which hover above the center of the eyes, with white areas suggesting reflection; they appear to gaze directly at the viewer. His powdered hair is bright white at the edge of the hairline, appears light gray at proper right, and becomes darker gray in the shadowing at proper left; short sideburns appear at proper right. A large black queue bag is shown at the proper right shoulder. The background is light brown around the head, and gradually becomes dark brown at the edges.
On 3 July 1792 Washington turned down a request for a sitting with American artist William Joseph Williams, telling Governor Henry Lee of Virginia: "I am so heartily tired of the attendance which, from one cause or another, I have bestowed on these kind of people, that it is now more than two years since I have resolved to sit no more for any of them; and have adhered to it; except in instances where it has been requested by public bodies, or for a particular purpose (not of the Painters) and could not, without offence, be refused. I have been led to make this resolution for another reason besides the irksomeness of sitting, and the time I loose [sic] by it, which is, that these productions have, in my estimation, been made use of as a sort of tax upon individuals, by being engraved, and that badly, and hawked, or advertised for Sale."
Nevertheless, soon after Wertmüller arrived in Philadelphia, George Washington apparently sat to him in the Senate Chamber, in August 1794. The sitting was not recorded by Washington, but by the artist, who indicated he kept the painting “for myself.” The portrait was completed by November 8th, and was likely used to make copies in 1795. (The original 1794 portrait is now owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) According to the early cataloguers Morgan and Fielding, the MVLA example, and one other, remained unfinished at the time of the artist’s death. It may be that Washington agreed to the sitting in order to present a portrait to the Cazenove family, as Rembrandt Peale suggested in 1855. (This 1795 portrait is now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)
The artist demonstrated tremendous prowess at representing textiles, as can be seen in his 1784 portrait of French sculptor Jean-Jacques Caffieri (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). If finished, the MVLA painting would no doubt include the fine lace jabot at the neck, so exquisitely painted in the versions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the National Museum of Stockholm, as well as the prominent white powder along the proper shoulder they also share. These three versions are also all prominently signed and dated on the front of the canvas, while the MVLA version lacks a signature. The MVLA version, however, does include excellent attention to the texture of the velvet coat, including wrinkles in the sleeve and the shoulder.
It is perplexing why the artist, beset by financial difficulties, did not attempt to finish and sell this canvas. Gilbert Stuart (and others who copied his portraits) created a veritable industry in the sale of Washington portraits during the period.
While Wertmüller’s portraits of Washington remain somewhat obscure today, they exhibit to contemporary eyes an extraordinary sense of vitality and presence often lacking in other portraiture of the President (including Stuart’s). Here, Washington appears very human, and at ease. (This is particularly interesting given Gilbert Stuart’s complaints of Washington’s stiffness as a sitter, and that Wertmüller’s portrait dates to a critical stage during the key challenge to Washington’s presidency--the Whiskey Rebellion.) The artist’s history of painting royalty and other figures of prominence may have made him more comfortable with his sitter, and capable of embodying Washington in paint. The sense of Washington’s human presence is in part due to Wertmüller’s careful modelling of the head, but also to the trace of a smile and the remarkable eyes which gaze directly at the viewer. Wertmüller’s unusual, and effective, manner of painting this physical detail is echoed in his other portraits.
The artist was also extremely accomplished in painting facial detail and skin tone. Many different colors were employed to convey Washington’s flesh—from pale peach at the forehead (where there are subtle wrinkles shown), to paler below the eyes, to the very subtle approach to the chin, jowls, and shadow of a beard.
In the inventory of the Goods and Chattels of the Estate of the late Elisabeth Wertmüller produced on January 24, 1812, the MVLA portrait, and another unfinished painting were listed as “2 likenesses of George Washington not finished” for 20 dollars, while a finished likeness in a frame was listed for 50 (this is the Philadelphia Museum of Art version). A miniature of Washington was also listed for 10 dollars. (See Benisovich, 1953.) A public sale of the estate was held on 26th February, 1812. Another sale was held May 18, 1812. It may be that the grandfather of Jasper Green, who gave it to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, purchased it at one of these sales.
Line of Probable descent: The artist; By descent to his wife, Elisabeth (Betsey) Henderson Wertmüller (d. 1812); Estate of the artist, executor Amos Slaymaker (1755-1837); Presented at auction, May 1812; Likely purchased by grandfather of Jasper Green; Deposited by Jasper Green at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Purchased by 18 members of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and presented to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on 3 January 1876, apparently as a "Centennial" gift; Transferred to the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia in 2002; Deaccessioned from the collection of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia, PA, 2010; Christie’s, New York, Important American Furniture, Folk Art and Prints, Sale 2343, September 29, 2010, Lot 76; Purchased by the MVLA, 2010.