Painted during the first term of Washington's presidency, this portrait heralds the triumphant General, his victories during the Revolutionary War and his ascendance to Father of the Nation. With an assured, steady gaze, George Washington is rendered by Charles Peale Polk in a bold, linear style that the young artist mastered after training with his uncle and Washington portraitist, Charles Willson Peale. Polk also imitated his uncle's earlier portraits of Washington by including Nassau Hall, a symbolic reference to the American success at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. The battle, which marked a critical turning point of the war, must have also been a poignant personal memory for the young artist. Only ten years old at the time, Polk was soon to be orphaned by the death of his father and was living in the Peale household while Peale himself was among the troops that fought for victory at Princeton. The overall effect is of George Washington as the embodiment of composure and heroism in the face of turbulent times, an ideal from the eighteenth-century that remains a powerful image in today's America.
Charles Peale Polk executed this portrait in the early years of the 1790s, using his uncle's 1787 "Convention" portrait of Washington (fig. 1) as the basis for the head and shoulders. Princeton's Nassau Hall, depicted in the background, was a powerful symbol of both the military successes and political beginnings of the new nation under the leadership of Washington. On January 3, 1777, Washington's forces achieved a spectacular victory at the Battle of Princeton, just ten days after he crossed the Delaware to overcome the Hessian troops at Trenton. Occurring after more than a year of retreat, these battles were crucial successes for the embattled American forces and their victories encouraged much needed support from other nations. During the battle, Nassau Hall was occupied by British troops and it is among the many references included in Peale's renowned portraits of Washington begun in 1779. After America's military success at Yorktown in 1781 and the conclusion of the war, Nassau Hall once again played a prominent role. From June to November, 1783, it served as the country's capital and it was here that Congress received the news of the signing of the Treaty of Paris and formally congratulated Washington on the successful conclusion of the War of Independence. Numbered forty seven on the reverse, this portrait is one of a series begun in 1790 by Polk, who may have collaborated with his uncle on a prototype painted in 1788-1789. Other examples from this series are in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Winterthur Museum, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (see Linda Crocker Simmons, Charles Peale Polk, 1767-1822: A Limner and His Likenesses (Washington D.C., 1981), pp. 4-5, 26-36).
Charles Peale Polk was born in Maryland in 1767, the son of Captain Robert Polk (1744-1777) and Charles Willson Peale's sister, Elizabeth Digby Peale (1747-c.1776). His mother died from tuberculosis in about 1776 and a year later, his father was killed in battle. Orphaned at the age of ten, the young Polk was adopted by his uncle, Charles Willson Peale, and, older than Peale's surviving children, became one of the famous artist's first family students. Polk practiced by emulating Peale's famous portraits and at the age of eighteen, first advertised on his own with the following:
The subscriber begs leave to inform the public that having finished his studies under the celebrated Mr. Peale of Philadelphia in Portrait Painting, he is now ready to exert himself to the utmost of his abilities in taking LIKENESSES in oil.
-The Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, June 30, 1785, cited in Simmons, p. 4.
In 1790, around the time he started his "Princeton" series, Polk wrote to Washington requesting a sitting to capture his likeness. While Washington often recorded such sittings in his diary, his entries for 1790 are missing, so it is not known whether Polk ever had the opportunity to paint the President from life (Simmons, pp. 4-5). After living in Philadelphia and Batimore, Polk lived in Frederick, Maryland and Washington D.C. where he became involved in politics and an ardent member of Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party. In 1820, he retired to Richmond County, Virginia where he died in 1822 at the age of fifty five (Simmons, pp. 5-18).
At the time of its sale in 1975, this portrait was noted to have been owned by George D. Krumbahaar of Philadelphia and Cazenovia, New York. George Douglas Krumbhaar (1837-1916) was the son of Lewis Krumbhaar (1805-1885) and Sophia Ramsay (1808-1874). He resided in Philadelphia where he married Susan Margaret Cooper (b. 1835) in 1858 and the couple had three children, included Cornelia Cooper Krumbhaar (b. 1869), who later inherited the portrait. According to the Philadelphia City Directory of 1890, George Krumbhaar lived at 2131 Walnut Street; he and his daughter were living in Cazenovia, New York by 1910, when they appear in that year's Federal Census. As indicated by a label on the reverse, the portrait was later owned by the Boston dealers Doll and Richards. In 1971, in a letter to the Peale scholar Charles Coleman Sellers, Thomas E. Norton of Parke-Bernet Galleries notes that the portrait was owned at that time by the Reid Estate in Purchase, New York (Charles Coleman Sellers Collection, The American Philosophical Society, Ms Coll 3, Series IV, "Polk, C.P. Washington" folder). After its sale at auction in 1975, the portrait was acquired by the Claneil Foundation, Inc., the consignor of the portrait at the time of its sale at Christie's in 1999.