by James Sharples, 1796
Digital facsimile prints and reproduction frames
At the conclusion of the presidency, George Washington commissioned profile portraits of his two namesakes, George Washington (Washy) Parke Custis and George Washington Motier de Lafayette from the renowned English portrait painter James Sharples. They rounded out the set with portraits of George, Martha, and Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis and hung them in the front parlor upon their return to Mount Vernon.
The Sharples portraits represent a window into the complex framework of the President’s “domestic family.” Though the Washington’s were never able to have children of their own, they served as the adoptive parents of Martha’s two youngest grandchildren, Washy and Nelly. The two lived with them as teenagers in Philadelphia and were certainly considered members of the immediate family. The artist captured the young Lafayette, age 16, while he lived with the Washingtons in exile from France. During the Reign of Terror, the Marquis de Lafayette was declared a traitor and imprisoned. His son escaped and spent a year-and-a-half in the United States living with the Washingtons, and they considered them one of their own.
The artist apparently garnered commissions by asking certain dignitaries to sit for profiles, and then enticing them to purchase one or more copies of the completed portraits. He often retained the original portrait so that he (or other members of his family) could copy them. A number of sources suggest that the Sharples’ supposedly mathematically correct proportions were derived from the use of a physiognotrace, a type of pantograph, a new technology in the period.
Frames: George Washington’s probate inventory lists four of the James Sharples in “Ovolo Gilt frame[s] and the fifth, of Eleanor Parke Custis, in a “Gilt Square frame.” While none of Mount Vernon’s Sharples portraits survive in their original frames, many others do. P. H. Miller Studios reproduced these frames based on originals owned by Philip Bradley Antiques (square) and a private owner (oval). Joseph Painter of Pennsylvania created the digital facsimiles.