America’s Founding Fathers 1

Just as the great masters of European art fused their own facial features with their sitters’ in order to represent various aspects of their creative mind (see Who's  Who in Portraits), so too did American artists. Some travelled or studied in Europe and might have learnt the concept by visiting museums. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson reported in the nineteenth century that he had seen the same face by Leonardo six or seven times in the Louvre alone.1 Others might have studied reproductive engravings and come to similar conclusions. However they learnt it, they clearly did. One only has to look at well-known portraits of America’s Founding Fathers to see the same principle at work in the New World. 

Portraits of George Washington by three different artists all resemble the artist. In each case, the President’s lips and chin, and sometimes the nose, change to match the artist’s. In the portrait of Washington at left by Gilbert Stuart the nose matches Stuart's as do the disappearing lips. (The portrait of Stuart was painted by two Peales, father and son.2)

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Gilbert Stuart's George Washington at Dorcherster Heights (1806)

Right: Detail of Gilbert Stuart by Charles Wilson and Rembrandt Peale

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John Trumbull was an aide-de-camp to Washington during the Revolutionary War and is said to have painted the General's portrait from life (left). Nevertheless, a comparison with this later self-portrait (right) shows too many similarities to be coincidental. Look at the nose, lips and chin. Even if Trumbull made himself resemble his own portrait of Washington to imagine himself as a warrior-artist, that would not explain why Washington's features are so different to those in these other portraits.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Trumbull, Detail of George Washington before the Battle of Trenton (1792)

Right: Trumbull, Detail rotated of Self-Portrait (c.1802)

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There is no such confusion here because the self-portrait by Charles Wilson Peale was painted long before he painted the head of Washington. Note again how the lips and chin echo the artist's without matching each other exactly. The hair does too. Here they both wear wigs but in the previous comparison with paintings by Trumbull they both had windswept hair.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: C.W. Peale, Detail of Head of Washington (c.1795-8)

Right: C.W. Peale, Detail of Self-Portrait with Angelica and Portrait of Rachel (1782-5)

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An earlier portrait of Washington by the same artist in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is even more like Peale though here the portrait of the artist post-dates Washington's. The self-portraits of major artists, however, sometimes maintain a similar pose throughout their career so it is possible that the young Washington is based on a similar but now-lost self-portrait.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of George Washington by C.W. Peale (c. 1777)

Right: Detail of Self-Portrait with Angelica and Portrait of Rachel (1782-5)

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Remarkably, the same self-portrait bears striking resemblance to Peale's portrait of Thomas Jefferson which was painted several years later, most notably in the chin, lips and nose. Whatever you think of these resemblances - and some are more evident than others - the sitter's likeness does not appear to be the artist's principal priority. Thus, whatever is really happening, these portraits are not "photographs" but art.

Given space limitations, we must continue this portrait survey of America's Founding Fathers in a separate entry. Click here.

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Thomas Jefferson by C.W. Peale (1791)

Right: Detail of Self-Portrait with Angelica and Portrait of Rachel (1782-5)

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1.Cited in a New York Times review on Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, ed. Adam Gopnik (The Library of America) 2004.

2. The portrait of Stuart remained in Stuart's possession.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 19 Jan 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.