In 1819, exactly twenty years after Washington's death, Bass Otis (1784-1861) painted his version of The Washington Family. Otis closely followed Edward Savage's famous portrait now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. In both, Washington is seated in full military regalia, surrounded by his adoring and reverent family, his wife Martha Washington, her grandchildren, Eleanor and George Washington Parke Custis, and Washington's faithful slave, Billy Lee. Martha Washington and Eleanor Parke Custis present the President with L'Enfant's plans for the Capitol as a young George Washington Parke Custis reveals a globe from beneath a heavy purple curtain. Otis completed this painting during the Era of Good Feelings, a time of great national pride following America's victories in the War of 1812. Considered the second war for independence, this war tested and verified the political ideals and military strength of the young nation and created a new meaning for this painting. Now, more than ever, the country could be assured that the grand experiment of America would succeed and a confident nation celebrated its founder and first president.
Otis made several adjustments to Savage's painting. The portrait has become a more literal depiction with the words Atlantic Ocean and Potomac River emblazed on the globe and map. The scene itself is opened and peripheral space is added to the portico behind George Washington Parke Custis to the left and Billy Lee to the right. Both George and Martha Washington's faces are turned slightly more toward the viewer. The carpet bears a different pattern, a tassel is added to the center of the red drapery, and the green drapery on the globe has turned a regal purple. These alterations were probably made by Bass Otis to act as a modello for a print to disseminate The Washington Family to a wide audience.
Recognized as America's first lithographer, Bass Otis is believed to be a self-taught artist who learned the trade from a coach painter. While Otis was known for his portraits, he also completed a group of copies of important historical paintings including famous portraits of patriots such as Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette (Joseph Jackson, "Bass Otis, America's First Lithographer," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. XXXVII, no. 4, (1913), p. 393). Working in Philadelphia, Otis became an Academician of the Pennsylvania Academy in 1824 and was a regular exhibitor at the yearly exhibition (Jackson, pp. 385, 391).
This painting was first exhibited at the Exhibition of the Columbian Society of Artists at the Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia in 1819 (Jackson, p. 393). As recorded by the artist himself, he "painted a Washington Family picture for John Kneas" in 1819 for 50 dollars (Thomas Knoles, The Notebook of Bass Otis: Philadelphia Portrait Painter (Worcester, American Antiquarian Society, 1993), p. 207). Knoles states that Kneas (Kneass), was a copperplate printer (Knoles, p. 207, fn. 8). Kneas may have been the brother of William Kneass (1781-1840) of the firms Kneass & Dellaker and Young, Kneass & Co. who worked as an engraver from 1805-1840 (David McNeely Stauffer, American Engravers Upon Copper and Steel, vol. 1 (1907; reprint, New Castle, Delaware, 1994), pp. 158-159).