Charles Willson Peale
Charles Willson Peale
Charles Wilson Peale, born April 15, 1741, was a second artist who shared personal ties with the first president. In fact, while serving as a first lieutenant in the militia, he developed a close relationship with figures like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, crossing the Delaware with Washington.
In 1772, Peale painted the very first portrait of Washington, seen here to the left.
In a 1772 letter to Jonathan Boucher, Washington wrote the following glowing praise for Peale's artistry:
"Inclination having yielded to Importunity, I am now, contrary to all expectation under the hands of Mr Peale; but in so grave—so sullen a Mood—and now and then under the influence of Morpheus, when some critical strokes are making, that I fancy the skill of this Gentleman’s Pencil, will be put to it, in describing to the World what manner of Man I am. I have no doubt of Mr Peales meeting with very good Incouragement in a Tour to Williamsburg; for having mentioned him to some Gentlemen at our Court, they seem desirous of employing him in his way down." (1)
The letter between Jonathan Boucher and George Washington is an important clue to understanding how Washington felt about having his image made. He tells Boucher that he wants his picture to display what kind of man he is, presumably one of etiquette and respectable morals. Washington's personality and love for the rules of civility suggest that he had no interest in portraying superiority or power with his portraits, but the image of an honest man who valued quiet contemplation and respect.
Peale's motivation for creating art was to make art available to more than just the wealthy few, as well as to help the cause of the Revolution, with Washington being it's most prominant figure. Here, Washington's image is plainly used as a symbol of patriotism and the promotion of political ideas.
1. “From George Washington to Jonathan Boucher, 21 May 1772,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0036. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 9, 8 January 1772 – 18 March 1774, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994, pp. 49–50.]