Evolution of a Portrait
By Lisa Goulet, Collections Manager
In January 2019, the Museum received a generous gift made by Kent D. and Tina K Worley. This collection spans the breadth of material culture from and about the Revolutionary Era, including military and tavern-related artifacts, art, documents, and maps, including this unique engraving of George Washington. Collections Manager Lisa Goulet takes us behind the scenes to uncover the engraving’s unique origins.
This print, based on the painting by Alonzo Chappel, George Washington: Design for an Engraving, is one of many shifting depictions of Washington in the years after his death. It is exemplary of the booming print culture in the United States during the nineteenth century and how artists used existing work for both inspiration and factual reference before photography dominated the print industry. While the origins of this specific piece are unknown, the print’s small size indicates it was most likely published in a book or magazine.
By the nineteenth century, Gilbert Stuart’s famous 1796 Lansdowne Portrait – showing Washington in his last year as President, standing with his arm extended over a table – prevailed as the most accurate depiction of Washington’s likeness in the years following his death. Later iterations include Stuart’s standing portrait, Washington on Dorchester Heights, a copy of which by his daughter Jane is currently on view in the staircase leading to the Zabriskie Gallery. In 1797 Stuart painted a seated version, known as the Constable-Hamilton Portrait.
Chappel used this version as the basis of his portrait, which Natalie Spassky in American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985) interprets as a critical shift in the representation of Washington: “He is no longer an activist but a contemplative senior statesman. Surrounded by books, he has become the scholar in his study.” Chappel’s original was painted nearly 65 years later as the model for a steel engraving, published in Evert A. Duyckinck’s Lives and Portraits of the Presidents of the United States (1868).
However, the piece recently acquired by Fraunces Tavern Museum contains significant modifications even from Chappel’s painting and its engraving counterpart: the engraver has chosen to omit the spaces under and beside the chair, along with background details. Instead of depicting books on the floor, they are placed atop the table. The billowing curtain that grew to dominate the background is drawn closer to Washington to reveal more Doric columns. Perhaps the most striking departure from previous representation, the details have been sharpened in Washington’s face, giving him a youthful and commanding demeanor.
By following the visual references in this unique engraving of George Washington back to their origins, it is possible to then see how the nineteenth century boom in printing production coupled with the use of previous artworks for reference contributed to popularizing the iconic image of Washington as we think of him now.