Washington at Yorktown

Washington at Yorktown by Charles Willson Peale
George Washington | Charles Willson Peale | c. 1780–1782 | Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art | Bentonville, AR

While the Portrait Gallery’s iconic “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington is off view, we are pleased to be able to temporarily exhibit Charles Willson Peale’s 1782 George Washington, painted for a French officer who served in America during the Revolution and commemorating the victory at Yorktown. Peale’s portrait depicts Washington not as president but as the military commander who fought and won the American Revolution. Even though it is not a presidential portrait, Peale’s Washington allows us to broaden our scope to talk about the reasons Washington had such a great reputation among his countrymen, and indeed internationally. The American people have had a habit of rewarding successful military commanders with the presidency, and the pattern was set from the beginning with Washington’s military career.

The portrait has an added biographical dimension because of the artist who painted it. Born in Maryland and later moving to Philadelphia, Charles Willson Peale left one of the most compelling visual records of the first president, painting Washington throughout his career. Indeed, in 1772 Peale painted the very first oil portrait of Washington, which shows the Virginian as a colonel in the English colonial service. By 1776 Peale had established his practice in Philadelphia, portraying many of the leading lights of the revolutionary movement as political resistance moved to rebellion. A political partisan, Peale did not sit on the sidelines during the Revolution but joined the Pennsylvania militia; a lieutenant, he fought at the Battle of Princeton, leaving an important autobiographical account of the New Jersey campaign. Here, Peale depicts Washington at the field of Yorktown, the battle that ended the Revolutionary War. It was commissioned by the Marquis de Chastellux (1734–1788), who was on the staff of the commander of the French troops in America, the Marquis de Rochambeau.

Installation of George Washington portrait
Photo by Mataiong Du, National Portrait Galery