By Fergus M. Bordewich
March 1, 2009
The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art, by Hugh Howard, Bloomsbury Press, 320 pp. $30
A quarter century after the death of George Washington in 1799, Rembrandt Peale, one of the foremost painters of his era, was still trying to create what he called a “Standard National Likeness” of the first president. Peale was a man driven. He had completed at least 16 composite likenesses of Washington, all of them praised by the picture-buying public, but he still felt like a failure. Finding him in his studio, overwrought and despairing, Peale’s wife begged to know what was wrong. “When I told her,” Peale recalled, “she burst into a flood of tears, & exclaimed with great emotion that Washington was my evil genius, & she wished he had never been born!”
Although Peale’s obsession with Washington was extreme, he was not alone. Today, we are so familiar with images of Washington’s face, from schoolroom walls to dollar bills, that it’s hard to conceive of a time when most Americans had no idea what he looked like. Americans of the post-revolutionary generation not only wanted to know more about the rawboned Virginia aristocrat who had led the Continental Army to victory, they also desperately craved a symbol that could both humanize and unify their new nation. And that symbol, they universally agreed, was George Washington.
In an age without photography, only art could deliver what people wanted. In this intricate and engaging book, Hugh Howard tells the story of the birth of professional painting in America by intertwining it with the quest of artists to capture Washington on canvas. When Washington was born, in 1732, few Americans had ever seen a painting. Indeed, puritanical 18th-century colonists regarded portraiture as an appropriation of God’s power of creation—not to mention a sinful expression of vanity on the sitter’s part. Within the course of Washington’s lifetime, however, a transformation took place, as serious painting, sculpture, and architecture shaped the central images and identity of the embryonic United States. Howard’s story is thus not only about the birth of American painting, but—through the creation of its first, most long-lasting, and most transcendent human icon—about the invention of America itself.
The president was a grudging sitter. Although undeniably charismatic, he was also famously controlled, and took pride in bleaching out emotion from his facial expression. Posing for artists bored him silly; he generally treated the experience with something like the stoic fortitude that he had learned on the battlefield. Expecting to find the human embodiment of republican nobility, painters instead were confronted with an elderly man who would obviously have preferred to be somewhere else. Peale, a prodigy who first painted Washington from life at the age of 17, was so intimidated by the great man that he was only able to work when his father stood by and chatted up the president to keep him amused.
The painters were, in Howard’s finely etched rendering, a diverse bunch. Charles Willson Peale was an egalitarian who believed that everyone should be exposed to art and science. John Trumbull saw independence as an epic that cried out to be ennobled on canvases as imposing as those of the European masters. Entrepreneurial Edward Savage made his fortune with a single portrait of Washington and his family. But it was alcoholic and undependable Gilbert Stuart who, arguably, captured the great man’s “unimpeachable mix of gravity, selflessness, and implied power” better than any other painter. Stuart had a particular gift for painting heads and faces coupled to an infuriating habit of failing to finish paintings. “For Stuart, however, the face of his sitter was the truth,” writes Howard.
Howard offers a singularly apt and painterly metaphor for the challenge of penetrating the traditional image of this unyielding “figurehead chosen to lead an ad hoc army into an undeclared war on behalf of a country that did not yet exist.” As varnishes age, Howard notes, they yellow or “saponify,” becoming cloudy, and obscuring the very images they are intended to protect. “The result can be the appealing patina of age or, more often, a darkening and ever-more-opaque membrane on a painting’s surface,” he writes. “To understand the pictures, we must look through not only the haze of the varnish but through a layering of propaganda and perception.” The book’s title is also a neat play on words. Literally, it refers to a specialized device first brought to America from Europe by Rembrandt’s father, Charles Willson Peale: a commodious armchair equipped with a pivoting mechanism that allowed the sitter to rotate without shifting position, as the painter required. But the title also alludes to the varying angles of vision that professional painters brought to their quest for the “definitive” Washington.
By employing the “science of physiognomy,” he believed his likenesses enabled the viewer to read temperament and character in the facial features and expression he limned. Of that one cannot be sure, but he was indisputably the best American painter of his age. For Stuart, the face was the painting; the rest of it was just wrapping paper.
What all the painters had in common was the determination to build a career on Washington’s image and the will to survive as an independent artist. Even for the best endowed of them, it was a struggle. America was, as Howard writes, “a pragmatic land where drawing skills were more likely to be employed in surveying land than seeking beauty,” and painters were regarded as mere “limners.” Trumbull, the scion of an eminent Connecticut family—his father was its wartime governor—appalled his parents when he announced his intention to make his way as an artist. When he cited the glories of ancient Greek art as his inspiration, his father dismissively replied, “You forget, sir, that Connecticut is not Athens.”
But the moment was ripe. Citizens who had gained prosperity along with independence were eager to embrace the life of the mind by pursuing new intellectual and artistic tastes. Meanwhile, political men, Washington and Jefferson among them, recognized that art could perform a useful public function by familiarizing Americans with their leaders and fostering patriotic pride in the nation. Soon Washington’s face gazed out at every American from a multitude of mezzotints, engravings, lithographs, and hand-painted copies more or less mass-produced by the leading artists from their own studio portraits. Stuart, in particular, was so skillful at turning out quickie versions of his Washington portraits—one could be knocked out in just two hours—that he took to sarcastically calling them his “hundred-dollar bills.”
At the end of the 18th century, the United States was less a nation than a congeries of semi-independent states, far more like the rickety Yugoslavia of the 1990s (with South Africa–style segregation thrown in) than the superpower of today. Effective government extended only from the Atlantic seacoast to the frontiers of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio. Even in the settled East, it took three days to journey the 100 miles from Philadelphia to Georgetown on the Potomac over roads that were corrugated with stones, stumps, and ruts. A crazy quilt of state jurisdictions maddeningly compounded the difficulties of travel—a traveler from Virginia to New York, for example, had to juggle no fewer than three different state currencies to pay his expenses along the way. No one really knew if the frail system that had been established at the Constitutional Convention would survive. Local officials were incompetent or worse, while the very idea of full democracy repelled many of the men who were charged with making it work. “The people should have as little to do as may be about government,” snorted Connecticut senator Roger Sherman, one of the most influential men in the nation. Inside Congress and out, there was a pervasive sense that the entire jerry-built system might break down at any moment.
Howard is a judicious historian and never suggests that the nation’s survival depended on the handful of talented artists who, like admiring satellites, orbited George Washington. Yet the role they played in the nation’s birth was nonetheless crucial. By painting and repainting the great man, by rendering him as general, president, and family man, they created the first, astonishingly enduring, images of a republican leader, and gave them to a vibrant but unstable nation that was devoid of symbols of common identity. No, the painters did not save the United States; ordinary Americans did that with their pugnacious determination to make their untried system work. But the artists did deliver to those ordinary Americans icons that inspired them, as well as the promise, long though it would take to be completely fulfilled, that Americans could create art.
Fergus M. Bordewich is the author, most recently, of America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. His next book, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government, will be published in February.
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