Early Washington portrait finds its way back home
Dermot Rooney, left, and David Schlaegel prepare to put up the early George Washington portrait Thursday in Mount Vernon, Va. It’s on loan from Washington and Lee University.
Young Col. Washington came home to Mount Vernon, Va., packed in a foamlined wooden box that was fastened with 14 screws and labeled “keep dry.”
He had been away for 216 years, but inside his gilded frame he still looked soldierly in his red waistcoat and pale sash. Around his neck he wore a silver officer’s pendant, marked with the British royal coat of arms.
And his face was that of a confident man, accustomed to command.
This was the youthful George Washington painted in his 40s by the artist Charles Willson Peale. The famous portrait returned to display at Mount Vernon last week for the first time since 1802.
Here was not the dour, white-haired figure on the dollar bill, nor the blackclad older man with bad dentures depicted in other portraits.
This was the earliest known painting of the country’s first president and the man who would lead the Colonial forces to victory in the Revolutionary War.
The painting,“George Washington as Colonel in the Virginia Regiment,” was uncrated and hung with care in Mount Vernon’s Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, where it opened to the public Thursday.
It will be on display for the next two years.
“We always mourn (Mount Vernon pieces) that got away,” said Susan Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s executive director for historic preservation and collections.
Now one is back. “It’s absolutely thrilling to be able to experience the young George Washington instead of the battle-worn Washington,” she said. “It’s the only likeness that we have of him depicting his appearance prior to the Revolutionary War.”
The painting is on loan from Washington and Lee University.
In October, the university, grappling with is complex history, decided to replace paintings of Washington and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in military garb with depictions of the men in civilian clothes.
Mount Vernon has loaned the university its Gilbert Stuart portrait of an older Washington not in uniform.
In May 1772, the Annapolis, Md.-based Peale visited Mount Vernon and was asked by Washington’s wife, Martha, to paint her husband’s portrait.
Washington sat for Peale over three days and paid the artist about 18 pounds — approximately $2,700 in today’s money, according to a University of Wyoming currency calculator.
Peale painted Washington in the garb of a colonel of the Virginia Regiment, which Washington had commanded from 1755 to 1758 during the French and Indian War, according to Mount Vernon
The oil painting is 60 inches tall and 50 inches wide.
“He looks commanding, as you would expect an officer,” Schoelwer said. “He looks trustworthy.”