In size, compositional detail and facial rendering, this portrait is a faithful copy of Charles Willson Peale’s original (fig. 1) and has been firmly attributed to Charles’s son Rembrandt. Both portraits reveal a youthful, red-haired Washington serving as a colonel in the Alexandria militia during the French and Indian War. In his description of the older Peale’s portrait, Charles Coleman Sellers notes that Washington has “orders for the march thrust into his pocket, rifle at his back, sword at his side – the same sword which he wore when he resigned his commission as Commander-in-chief in 1783, which he wore when inaugurated President six years later, and which is now preserved at Mount Vernon.” The leader is depicted in a “woodland setting of the Colonel’s campaigns, with an Indian camp beside a waterfall and a glimpse of those distant mountains where France and England had contended for a wilderness empire” (Charles Coleman Sellers, Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale (Philadelphia, 1952), p. 218). The present lot is an homage by Rembrandt to his father’s oeuvre, and although Rembrandt employed a ruddier color palette, rendered slightly rounder facial features and delineated a more detailed background landscape, Rembrandt’s adherence to the original format and scale suggests the present work was intended to both honor Charles’s artistry and reinforce in public memory the Peale patriarch’s established relationship with Washington.
Martha Washington commissioned Charles’s 1772 portrait to serve as a pendant to her own portrait, painted in 1757 by John Wollaston (both portraits descended in the Washington/Custis family and are now in the collection of Washington and Lee University). This early commission began a fruitful relationship between Charles and the future Commander-in-chief that extended through the Revolution and Washington’s Presidency, as Charles had the honor of multiple life sittings with Washington over the ensuing 23 years. Rembrandt profited from, and grasped the importance of, this relationship between his father and the President, as he joined Washington’s final life sitting with Charles in 1795.
Contemporary correspondence and advertisements, along with extant works, reveal that Rembrandt copied his father’s portraits of Washington as well as creating those of his own. However, as Rembrandt’s register of completed pieces was lost in a fire, there is no record of when or why he completed this version of Charles’s 1772 image. Stylistically and technically, the present portrait appears to predate Rembrandt’s own 1824 Washington portrait, Patriae Pater (Collection of the U.S. Capitol). Patriae Pater depicts the President with modeled features and dramatic shadows in a neoclassical, symbolic style, and Rembrandt’s post-1824 Washington portraits, even if copies of earlier works, tend to exhibit formal affinities with the highly successful Pater. A signed and dated 1858 portrait by Rembrandt, based on the 1772 Washington likeness (Collection of The Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island (fig. 2), incorporates many of the techniques and stylistic features of Patriae Pater, including a shoulders-up format, a lack of delineated background, modeled, contrasting features and larger, vivid eyes. The stark difference in style between this 1858 copy and the one offered here supports the argument that the present work was created prior to 1824.