spacer George Washingtonspacer George Washington (1732-1799)
First President (1789-1797)

When Americans chose their first President under their new Constitution in 1788, the election of George Washington was a foregone conclusion. In the recent fight for independence, no one had been more crucial than he, and of the Founding Fathers, none engendered as much admiration.

Despite Washington's prestige, his presidency had its critics. Toward the end of his administration, one newspaper branded him a "scourge and misfortune." Still, even some of his critics doubtless admitted that his election had been a wise choice. While his administration's fiscal policies brought sorely needed economic stability, his adroit leadership kept the country safely removed from involvement in the Anglo-French conflicts of the 1790s. Above all, his firm leadership gave a credibility to the new federal government that assured its survivability. Washington's intellect, Thomas Jefferson once admitted, was not "of the very first order." Nevertheless, he added, "He was indeed . . . a wise, a good, and a great man."

Young Rembrandt Peale was so nervous about painting Washington that his artist father, Charles Willson Peale, had to come along to the sittings to soothe his son's jangled nerves. The younger Peale made several replicas of his resulting portrait, including this version, which belonged to Henry William de Saussere, director of the United States Mint.


Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860)
Oil on canvas, 1795
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Transfer from the National Gallery of Art; gift of Andrew W. Mellon, 1942

NPG.65.59

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George Washington Rembrandt Peale's "Patriae Pater" of Washington

Not long after George Washington's death in 1799, Rembrandt Peale began to think about creating a definitive portrait of him that combined physical likeness with the full grandeur of his character and accomplishment. Using the Washington likeness he had painted in 1795 as his starting point, he came up with image after image, all of which he found wanting. Finally, in 1823, he decided to have one more try. The result was the original version of this portrait, which at last measured up to his expectations. Framed in stone to underscore the monumentality of the subject, the image became known as "Patriae Pater," and it was Peale's ambition to make it the main likeness by which posterity would know Washington. In the end, however, Peale's Washington never became the national icon that its maker hoped it would be, and today Americans know Washington best through the much-replicated likeness that Gilbert Stuart painted of him in 1796.


Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860)
Oil on canvas, probably 1853
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gift of an anonymous donor
NPG.75.4


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Martha Washington Martha Washington (1731-1802)

During her tenure as the nation's first lady, Martha Washington likened herself to a "state prisoner." Like her husband, however, she recognized the duties of her position, and for eight years she presided with great warmth and skill over the weekly receptions and state dinners of her husband's administration. Shortly after retiring with George Washington to their Mount Vernon home in 1797, she expressed her relief at being out of the public eye in a letter, describing herself as "steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and happy as a cricket."

Painted as the companion to the "Patriae Pater" likeness of her husband, Rembrandt Peale's portrait of Martha Washington was based on an original image painted from life sittings by his father, Charles Willson, in 1795. That picture now hangs in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.


Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860)
Oil on canvas, probably 1853
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gift of an anonymous donor
NPG.75.3


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George Washingtonspacer An early portrait print of George Washington

This print, issued in 1781 by the London printmaker Valentine Green, was one of the first means of familiarizing Europeans with the general who was leading the American revolt against British rule. The image was based on a painting by John Trumbull, a well-born American patriot who had served for a time as Washington's aide and traveled to London in 1780 to pursue his career as a painter. Shortly after arriving in the British capital, he was arrested briefly as a spy. At some point during his English stay he found time to paint a full-length portrait of Washington. Relying partly on his own memory of his subject, Trumbull also probably based his likeness on an American print of Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Washington, painted in 1776. Trumbull would later become a chronicler of the Revolution, with his series of large, historic tableaux depicting such events as the British surrender at Yorktown and the Battle of Bunker Hill.


Valentine Green (1739-1813), after John Trumbull
Mezzotint, 1781
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
NPG.76.54


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