What Washington looked like was essential — more important than we probably understand — to what we think of him and ultimately how we think of America.
The American revolutionaries of the 18th century understood that very well. It was an age well before the advent of photography, and pictures, particularly portraits, had a different meaning than they do today. At that time, a portrait was a statement, and that statement could have profound influence on the public thought of the subject and what that subject represented.
That’s why in January 1779, the Pennsylvania legislature resolved to honor those associated with the victories the Continental Army had achieved in the previous year “by preserving their resemblances in statues and painting.” This led to the commissioning of artist Charles Willson Peale to paint the first piece of public art in the history of the nation — a full-length portrait of George Washington. It was thus no accident that Washington — tall, confident, and in control — came to symbolize the emerging nation.
And Peale, who was one of many artists who would paint Washington, was the perfect man for the job.
Peale, originally from Maryland, had made himself a portrait painter of the first order in America by the time of the Revolution. He had studied in London under — and had become a full-fledged patriot on his return. Peale was a member of the New Jersey militia, which had assisted the Continental Army when it crossed the Delaware River and drove the British Army north. He had participated in the Battle of Princeton when Washington personally saved the army from collapse and scored the most important victory so far of the war.
The painting Peale produced used that very scene — the Battle of Princeton — to depict Washington as a man of stature, both physical and moral, and one who was totally in charge of any situation. As was the style of other portraits of the day, Washington is standing in a relaxed and confident manner with the Battle of Trenton as part of the background. He is leaning against a cannon with a scattering of enemy flags on the ground around him.
The symbolism of the painting is unmistakable: The American cause cannot be defeated with a man like Washington in charge. The mightiest army in the world — the British redcoats — must give way to this man and his cause.
“There was a new day in the history of America, and Peale condensed the new order of rule into a single image of Washington,” Paul Staiti writes in his excellent book Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes.
“Here was the living embodiment of republican virtue, a person of wealth and standing, will to risk life and limb for a cause he believes in. One glance at Peale’s portrait was all that was necessary for citizens to grasp the clear-cut differences between Washington and the King, between America and Britain, between the values of a republic and those of a monarchy, and, above all, between the present and the past.” (p. 40)
Staiti’s book recounts the revolutionary activities of five great artists: Peale, John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, John Trumbull, and Gilbert Stuart.
These names are well-known throughout America today, more than 200 years after the Revolution. And for good reason. Then as now, they helped us see the American Revolution, and the pictures they drew have remained with us.
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