William Winstanley was an English born landscape artist who came to the United States in the early 1790s, eventually settling in Philadelphia, the seat of the new republic. He has been recognized as one of first landscape painters in what is now the United States. While in Philadelphia, Winstanley gained a very prominent patron, the nation’s first president George Washington.
Washington purchased four Winstanley paintings during the presidency. The first two, views of the Hudson River, were displayed in the Green Drawing Room of the presidential mansion in Philadelphia.
Washington purchased two additional paintings from Winstanley in 1794. Washington brought the Winstanley landscapes back to Mount Vernon following his presidency and displayed them in his extraordinary New Room that served, among other purposes, as a well-appointed art gallery.
In so doing, Washington established the earliest collection of American landscape paintings. Three of those original works are now on display at Mount Vernon in the New Room, the fourth has never been located. Those works include: View of the North [Hudson] River (Morning), ca. 1793; View of the North [Hudson] River (Evening), ca. 1793; Genesee Falls (Falls of the Genesee) ca. 1794.1
In a letter of introduction to the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Washington wrote that Winstanley was a “celebrated Landskip (sic) Painter” while Alexander Hamilton, on viewing the two Hudson River paintings at the President’s house, said they were of “great intrinsic merit.” Hamilton would go on to write introduction letters for Winstanley to Robert Morris and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
Winstanley was in New York City by 1795 and advertisements by the artist indicate that he branched out into portraiture and history painting and displayed his works in a New York gallery for several years. His most well-known subject for a live sitting was President John Adams.2 As the Capitol moved to the shores of the Potomac, so did William Winstanley. Little is known of the rest of his career except that he moved back to England sometime after 1800. The last known record of Winstanley was in an 1806 large group exhibition at the British Institution in London.
John H. Zimmerman
George Washington's Mount Vernon
1. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association purchased the Hudson River paintings in 1940 while Genesee Falls is on long term loan from the Smithsonian since 1998. The latter arrangement represented the Smithsonian’s first partnership with a presidential house.
2. The John Adams portrait is on public view at The Old House at Peace field, Adams National Historical Park, Quincy, Mass.
Oliver, Andrew. The Adams Papers Series IV: Portraits of John and Abigail Adams. Cambridge. Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.
The Papers of Alexander Hamilton Digital Edition, ed. Harold C. Syrett. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2011.
The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 14, ed. David R. Hoth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
Pleasants, J. Hall, “Four Late Eighteenth-Century Anglo-American Landscape Painters.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 52. 1943.