Rembrandt Peale is known for his portraits of George Washington, one of which the New Britain Museum of American Art is delighted to have as a new acquisition this Presidents month. Rembrandt Peale is supposedly the last artist for whom Washington sat shortly preceding his death. Born in 1778 in Pennsylvania to the famous painter Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), Rembrandt began drawing at age eight. His father tutored him in art and the natural sciences, and he produced his first self-portrait at age thirteen. Peale’s most talented area and source of financial mainstay was painting portraits that were solid, accurate, and straightforward. By 1795, he painted a portrait of George Washington that honestly spoke to the hero’s humanity. Peale greatly admired and was inspired by the work of Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), who is known for his Vaughan and Athenaeum portraits of the first President.
The presidential portrait Thomas Jefferson of 1800 was one of Rembrandt’s most successful and insightful works, as it relates to Stuart’s techniques and reveals Peale’s interest in a fluid and painterly style influenced by his trip to England. Between 1808 and 1810, Peale traveled twice to Paris to learn what he could not in America and experience elevated forms of technical mastery. He returned with the dream of challenging history painting, which was a huge risk in America. He sporadically experimented with history painting for fourteen years but ultimately was unsuccessful.
Between 1810 and 1824 Rembrandt refined his artistic technique in portraiture, producing flawless and successful works. After moving with his family to Baltimore in 1814, he built an elegant museum where he exhibited his own work, that of his contemporaries, and scientific specimens, and he believed it was his responsibility as an American artist to educate the public through the values offered by the arts.
During this time, the psychological depth of his portraits reached a new level. However, the museum depleted his finances, and he left for New York City to concentrate on painting. The 1820s were characterized by his composite likeness of America’s hero, George Washington, for which he created a place for himself in the history of American art. He spent years studying life portraits of the first president, with his main sources being his own 1795 life portrait, the 1795 portrait done by his father, and the bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1785. He saw himself as a teacher of culture and believed a faithful copy could indicate technical information and characteristics and made art readily available.
Although he painted into his eighties, Peale also focused on writing and teaching. He entertained audiences with his lecture on “Washington and his Portraits”, as, at the time, he was the sole surviving artist to have known Washington and other artists who painted him from life. The last decade of his life and his overall success as an artist are distinguished by his creation for society of a significant image of America’s greatest hero. One of Rembrandt’s portraits of George Washington was recently donated to the New Britain Museum of American Art and unveiled on February 5 by donor Dr. Timothy McLaughlin at the Annual Director’s Dinner. This version is thought to be inspired by the Athenaeum portrait of Washington done by Gilbert Stuart and is an iconic image of our first President that speaks to Peale’s dream of motivating his countrymen and preserving the nation’s political and moral hero. What do you think of Peale’s portraiture of our Founding Fathers? What messages do they convey to you? If you were the President of a new nation, what would you want your portrait to say? How does Peale empower Washington? Stop by the NBMAA soon to the see Peale portrait on the New Acquisitions wall!