In 1795, at just seventeen years old, Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860) enjoyed the career-making opportunity to sketch George Washington (1732–1799) from life. Rembrandt’s father, the established painter Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), arranged the sitting with the president at his son's request. The elder Peale knew the president personally, having made several portraits of him, the first painted in the 1770s. Rembrandt was embarking upon his own career as an artist and hoped that a portrait of Washington would be an attention-getting feather in his cap.
At the sitting, father and son worked on portraits of Washington. Rembrandt drew on the experience and the sketches he made at the time to produce portraits of the American hero for decades. When selling these works in the 1840s and 1850s, Rembrandt Peale capitalized on his status as one of the few still living artists to have painted Washington from life. The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library holds two of Rembrandt Peale’s portraits of Washington in its collection, one of Washington in military uniform (upper left) and another of him in formal clothes (lower right).
The first of these works descended in a Philadelphia family. When the donor made the gift to the museum, he included a wonderful letter from Peale to the original buyer, Henry Paul Beck (1802-1874). In this document Peale thanks the purchaser, compliments his taste, offers advice on framing and tactfully asks him to correct a payment error. He also suggests a reason why Beck bought the painting—Beck's father was Washington’s friend—a piece of information about the sale that would be difficult for us to know without this correspondence.
In both its creation and its sale, this painting’s story speaks to the power of firsthand experiences. If you would like to have your own firsthand experience of the painting, stop by Curators’ Choice: Favorites from the Collection at the museum.
David Meschutt, “Life Portraits of George Washington,” in Barbara J. Mitnick, ed., George Washington, American Symbol (New York: Hudson Hills Press), 1999, pp. 33-34, 37.
George Washington, ca. 1847, Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Gift of John Bartholomew Webster, 75.6.
Letter,1847, Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Gift of John Bartholomew Webster, A75/007/1.
George Washington, ca. 1859, Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Gift of the Forrest D. McKerley Foundation, 2000.016. Photograph by David Bohl