‘It’s loaded with iconography,’ says specialist John A. Hays of Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington after his victory at the Battle of Princeton in early 1777. Commissioned two years later with the view to celebrate and promote the American cause both at home and abroad, Peale selected this critical moment of the War as it powerfully evokes the triumph of the American forces in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Washington's victories at Trenton on December 26, 1776 and Princeton on January 3, 1777 came at a time when many, including the General himself, thought he was on the brink of defeat. During the preceding months, the American forces had suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the Battles of Long Island, White Plains and Fort Washington, leading them to abandon New York and, pursued by the British, retreat through New Jersey.
Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827), George Washington at Princeton, 1779. Oil on canvas. Sold for: $21,296,000
At Trenton, with the enemy fast approaching, George Washington decided to station his troops on the western banks of the Delaware and so, on December 7, the army crossed the river, the first of four crossings that would be made that month, and joined newly arrived reinforcements from Pennsylvania. Among those was the artist Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), a lieutenant in a Philadelphia militia unit.
‘It was the first significant success Washington had. Winning that battle changed the course of the Revolution,’ says Hays, who chose the painting for our Game Changer series on art and objects that really made a difference. From despair to hope, the outlook of the Americans was transformed and hence, this moment of the War is known by historians as the ‘ten crucial days.’
‘This is what Washington really must have looked like,’ adds Hays. In Peale’s portrait, he says Washington is not idealised: ‘Look at his body — it looks like a sack of potatoes.’ In January 2006, the painting, titled George Washington at Princeton (1779), sold for $21,296,000 against a high estimate of $15 million.
Further revealing artefacts from the Revolutionary War are offered in the upcoming sale of The Collection of Charles Edward Sigety on 12 June, including a letter touching on the treatment of the Hessians captured by Washington at Trenton. Also in the sale are letters from George Washington, including one signed as ‘Commander-in-Chief, Continental Army’, dated June 1782, and a book from his library.
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