Portraits of George Washington for Presidents’ Day

George Washington

Rembrandt Peale (American, 1778–1860), George Washington, ca. 1850.
Oil on canvas. 53.15.1

Presenting the first blog post by communications intern Gauthier Melin.

Next Monday, the United States will celebrate Presidents’ Day, which takes place every year on the third Monday of February. This federal holiday is intended to honor all American presidents, and especially George Washington (1732–1799). On this occasion, FAMSF would like to highlight one of the most famous portraits of the first president of the United States from their collection.

Rembrandt Peale’s George Washington was painted around 1850, more than 25 years after his most well-known masterpiece: Washington, the Patriae Pater. Belonging to a series of so-called porthole portraits of Washington, this canvas shows the president in half-length, his face turned right, circled by a stone frame. This layout is reminiscent of neoclassical French painting of the late 18th and the early 19th century, particularly Jacques Louis David, who influenced Peale’s works.

This posthumous portrait illustrates the popular veneration for the Founding Father during the 19th century. Throughout his career, Rembrandt Peale labored at making George Washington an icon. By his death in 1860, he completed seventy-nine copies establishing a “standard likeness” of the first president. This approach not only shows a desire to create a symbol of national identity through images, but also promotes democracy as America’s religion.

Peale’s standardized image of Washington went on to inspire generations of artists to create their own portraits of the United States’ first president. Peale himself was inspired by Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington (1795), which later served as the model for the portrait on the US one dollar bill. The mass-production of this bill has led to a more familiar and materialistic vision of the first president.

E Pluribus Unum

Ray Beldner (American, b. 1961), E Pluribus Unum (after Rembrandt Peale, George Washington, ca. 1854), 2005
Sewn US currency. 2006.11

Ray Beldner, a native San Francisco artist, pointed out this duality—Washington as a symbol of American democracy and as a unit of national currency—in his piece named for the US national motto, E Pluribus Unum. Beldner created a facsimile of Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of George Washington (1854) by arranging 250 one dollar-bills. Therefore, he used bills, which are copies of Stuart’s portrait, in order to reproduce Peale’s copy of the same original. He kept in mind that copies make an original important. Thereby, the artist employed a common object from our daily life to refocus attention on a patriotic symbol.

George Washington

Rembrandt Peale (American, 1778–1860), George Washington, ca. 1854.
Oil on canvas. 69.30.214

All of these works are on view in the de Young's American galleries, along with additional portraits of the United States' first president. (The de Young will be closed on Presidents' Day, Monday, February 21.)

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