Painted by Charles Willson Peale at Mount Vernon in 1772, this is the earliest known portrait of George Washington.
Martha Washington commissioned the painting of her husband as a companion to the 1757 portrait of her by John Wollaston, completed during her first marriage. Both paintings hung in the Front Parlor at Mount Vernon, among other family portraits. Peale’s image is a highly evocative piece that commemorates Washington’s complicated past —his loyal military service and valor during the French and Indian War—but also acknowledges his then-status in retirement as a successful, middle-aged gentleman planter.
Colonel Washington wears a uniform in the blue and red colors of the Virginia Regiment, the unit he commanded from 1755-1758. Notably, the blue coat, with red facings and silver trim, make it clear that Washington was a provincial soldier, not a fully-commissioned officer in His Majesty’s forces. In addition, the cut of his coat has also been updated to an early 1770s style. Around his neck, he wears a stylish silver gorget engraved with the royal arms, a vestige of the armor worn by medieval knights, and across his chest he wears a military sash. Both were traditional symbols of rank worn by officers. (The pattern of the sash cannot be discerned from the painting, and it may have been one of at least two that Washington owned at that point. Washington had purchased his own military sash in 1754, and was given Gen. Edward Braddock’s sash after his death at the Battle of Monongahela in 1755.)
Peale captured the pierced hilt of Washington’s sword (at his left side) with exquisite detail, a clear depiction of the silver-hilted smallsword owned by Washington. Made in London in 1767, it was a fashionable status symbol that referenced Washington’s standing at the time of the painting. The sword survives today, and is one of treasures of the Mount Vernon collection.
The “Orders of March” that appear in Washington’s waistcoat pocket allude to Washington’s military service, but do not represent a specific event. In the same way, the portrait’s setting evokes the area where Washington served, but does not represent a specific location. The tents at lower left signal a military encampment, while the waterfall and the vast forests and mountains rising beyond suggest the landscape of the Ohio River Valley.
The musket, a fowler or hunting gun, carried at Washington’s back is an unusual addition. British officers did not carry longarms. Scholars debate the significance of the gun’s inclusion, but it may have called attention to the fact that at the time of the painting, Washington was then in retirement, enjoying the hunting sports of a gentleman planter.
The portrait hung in the Front Parlor at Mount Vernon from 1772-1802. After the Washingtons’ deaths, it was inherited by George Washington Parke Custis of Arlington House. It is part of the Washington-Custis-Lee Collection, given by Lee descendants to Washington & Lee University.