"I think that you distinguished in me a true friend to your country and the great cause of liberty."
-Chastellux, letter to George Washington, Newport, January 12, 1781.
Charles Willson Peale's portrayal of George Washington as the commander of the Continental Army after the triumph at Yorktown stands as a supreme testament to the success of the Franco-American alliance during America's War of Independence. The present work was originally owned by the Chevalier de Chastellux, a general in the French army who had developed a close relationship with Washington and whose military service in America culminated in his participation in the victory at Yorktown. While it was not the final battle of the American Revolution, the decisive defeat of Cornwallis proved instrumental in propelling Great Britain to initiate secret peace negotiations, discussions that in 1783 resulted in the Treaty of Paris, granting unconditional recognition of American independence.
Chastellux's personal ties also played a role in his patronage of the artist, Charles Willson Peale. Chastellux and Peale were not only fellow soldiers under Washington's command, they were also men of enlightenment who held the utmost regard for each other's artistic and literary accomplishments. Thus, this masterful rendition of George Washington is also a window into the intertwined lives and events surrounding its subject, owner and artist--three leading figures of Revolutionary America.
CHASTELLUX: A SOLDIER IN AMERICA'S WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
Born into the French aristocracy in 1734, Chevalier Francois-Jean de Chastellux (fig. 1) embarked by age thirteen upon his life-long military career. First commissioned a second-lieutenant in the army, he rose to prominence during the Seven Years War and by 1757 had assumed the rank of Colonel. At the same time, he was an acclaimed philosopher and writer. His scholarship was broad, befitting a noted figure of the enlightenment, and his published essays on subjects ranging from music to drama and politics earned him membership in the prestigious French Academy. Absorbed by the emerging conflict in America, Chastellux befriended Benjamin Franklin and in anticipation of his departure for America, Franklin wrote a letter of introduction to Washington in which he recommended Chastellux as "particularly a Friend to our Cause."1
The French had initially become allied with the American Continental Army in 1778 and as part of this effort, in March 1780, Chastellux was selected for an expedition to America led by Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau. This expedition was in addition to the support provided by the Marquis de Lafayette, a first cousin of Chastellux, who had first gone to America in 1778. With the rank of Major-General and Chief-of-Staff, Chastellux set sail with Rochambeau's army and arrived in Newport on July 11, 1780. They were greeted by the local population, which celebrated their arrival by illuminating their windows with candles. Chastellux was the first French officer from this expedition to meet Washington and his visit to Washington's headquarters in the summer of 1780 is frequently cited as one of the most detailed accounts of camp-life during the Revolution. Encountering a five-foot ten-inch gentleman conversing with the Marquis de Lafayette, Chastellux recalled, "It was the General himself. I was soon off horseback, and near him. The compliments were short; the sentiments with which I was animated, and the good wishes he testified for me were not equivocal."2 Reflecting on a lively dinner with claret and madeira, he was further moved to describe his early impressions of the General:
The goodness and benevolence which characterize him, are evident from every thing about him; but the confidence he gives birth to, never occasions improper familiarity; for the sentiment he inspires has the same origin in every individual, a profound esteem for his virtues, and a high opinion of his talents.3
For the next eleven months, the French forces remained in Newport while their leaders corresponded and frequently met with Washington to plan a united offensive against the British. Fluent in English, Chastellux was frequently employed as interpreter as neither Washington nor Rochambeau could speak the other's language. It was during this time that Chastellux and Washington developed a close friendship that was to endure long after the War (fig. 2). Their letters, replete with mutual admiration for each other's character and dedication to the American cause also reveal a shared sense of humor, such as the occasion of Chastellux's presentation of ten barrels of claret to Washington in which he jokingly declares that if his gift of a French product is not accepted, the General must have "tory" sympathies. Washington responds by noting Chastellux's "ingenious manner" of argument and, not wanting his patriotism to be questioned, readily accepts the gift.4
The planning of what was to become the victory at Yorktown was extensive with much debate on whether to attack Clinton's troops in New York or join Lafayette's troops against Cornwallis in Virginia. Against the arguments of Rochambeau, Chastellux supported Washington's decision in May of 1781 to focus all efforts on New York. With New York as the objective, the French army broke camp in Newport on June 10 and set out to join Washington's army in Westchester County, New York. Meanwhile, a fleet of the French navy under the command of Admiral Francois de Grasse set sail from the West Indies to provide additional support. With orders to select his own destination, de Grasse chose Virginia and in so doing, changed the course of the War. Upon hearing that de Grasse had arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake, Washington reversed his earlier decision and committed the allied forces to a southern attack. Leaving a small force behind to deceive the British, the French and American armies hastily marched through Philadelphia and Baltimore towards Virginia. Washington, Rochambeau and Chastellux rode ahead of the troops and their stay at Mount Vernon while en route from Baltimore to Williamsburg was the first time Washington had visited his estate since he took command of the Continental Army six years earlier. Entrenched in Yorktown, Cornwallis was surrounded by the American and French armies to the south while de Grasse's blockade, reinforced by another French fleet that had arrived from Newport, prevented any escape by sea. The allied forces opened fire on October 9 and after a few failed attempts to break through the opposition, including a sortie repelled by troops under Chastellux's command, Cornwallis raised the surrender flag eight days later.5 The importance of the French role at Yorktown is clearly seen in paintings celebrating the victory. Dressed in red uniforms, Rochambeau and Chastellux are prominently pictured in James Peale's Washington and his Generals at Yorktown (figs. 3, 4), which features the French ships in the background just as in the present work.6
During the following year, as the War drew to a close, Chastellux remained in America to continue his travels and record his observations of the social customs and natural resources of the country. These travels comprised three separate journeys undertaken between military campaigns (see Appendix I). While the French army was stationed in Newport during the latter months of 1780, Chastellux traveled through New Jersey and Pennsylvania and visited the battlefields of earlier conflicts such as the Germantown and Princeton. In early 1782, he again set out from his army's headquarters in Williamsburg and traveled throughout Virginia where he visited the home of Thomas Jefferson. As recounted by Chastellux, the two quickly became fast friends and he writes:
I had no sooner spent two hours with him than I felt as if we had spent our whole lives together. Walking, the library -- and above all, conversation which was always varied, always interesting, always sustained by that sweet satisfaction experienced by two persons who in communicating their feelings and opinions invariably find themselves in agreement and who understand each other at the first hint -- all these made my four days spent at Monticello seem like four minutes.7
Chastellux rejoined the French camp at Williamsburg and in June of 1782, led the entire French army on their march to Baltimore. While the army continued marching toward Boston, Chastellux returned to Philadelphia where he remained through the summer before embarking on a tour throughout Massachusetts. The accounts of these travels, an insightful commentary on the emerging nation's social, economic and natural landscape, were published soon after his return to France and as early as 1787 translated into English (fig. 5).8
After his New England tour, Chastellux returned to Philadelphia in December of 1782 and a month later traveled to Annapolis where he set sail for France in the company of Rochambeau. As a letter written just days before his departure indicates, Washington was foremost in his mind:
At the very instant that I embark and leave the American shore, my thoughts, my affections turn backwards and fly towards your excellency. You was [sic] my dearest expectation when I landed in this country, you are my last idea, my everlasting regret when I am going off.
-Chastellux to George Washington, Annapolis, January 8, 1783.
And Washington responded:
The Affectionate expressions in your farewell letter...gave a new spring to the pleasing remembrance of our past Intimacy; and your Letter of the 4th. of March from Paris, has convinced me that time nor distance can eradicate the Seeds of friendship when they have taken root in a good Soil and are nurtured by Philanthropy and benevolence. That I value your esteem, and wish to retain a place in your Affections, are truths of which I hope you are convinced.
-George Washington to Chastellux, Newburgh, New York, May 10, 1783
After his return, Chastellux was appointed military governor of Longwy and inspector general in the army, and divided his time between Paris and his family's feudal chateau in the Burgundy region of France (fig. 6). He lived only five more years, but during this time continued his lively correspondence with Washington.9 Over half of his outgoing letters during this time were addressed to Washington and in his attempts to lure the General to France, Chastellux teasingly notes the vulnerability of Mount Vernon to attack and hints at a French plot to kidnap the General. To which Washington replies that he may not resist such an endeavor as "there is such a thing as a pleasing Captivity."10 In 1784, Chastellux inherited the title of Marquis after the death of his brother and in 1788, married Marie Josephine, Baronne de Plunkett, an Irish noblewoman. Washington's delight upon hearing of Chastellux's marriage is evident:
Well my dear Marquis, I can hardly refrain from smiling to find you are caught at last. I saw, by the eulogium you often made on the happiness of domestic life in America, that you had swallowed the bait and that you would as surely be taken (one day or another) as you was [sic] a Philosopher and a Soldier. So your day has, at length, come. I am glad of it with all my heart and soul.
-George Washington to Chastellux, Mount Vernon, April 25, 1788
Unfortunately, this marriage only lasted a few months as the Marquis de Chastellux, seized by a fever, died in October of the same year.
CHARLES WILLSON PEALE: REVOLUTIONARY AMERICA'S PREMIER PORTRAIT PAINTER
Charles Willson Peale was born in Chestertown, Maryland, in 1741 and after a brief education was apprenticed to a saddler, with whom he developed skills in a variety of trades. Peale quickly earned a reputation as an adept artisan and also pursued an early interest in art, completing many sketches of family members and friends. At this early date, "Peale had no idea how artists prepared and put on colours," noted one art historian, "and he had never seen a palette or an easel; he worked out these details for himself, just as he had designed his own watchmaking and silversmithing tools...Had someone imported a new kind of saddle from Europe, he would have studied it with interest; in the same spirit, he studied a portrait of Cecilius Calvert attributed to Van Dyck which hung in the courthouse. It never occurred to him that it was ridiculous to try, without any special training, to do as well."11 In 1760, the young Peale traded a saddle with the artist John Hesselius (1728-1788) in exchange for painting lessons. Hesselius, who lived in nearby Annapolis, provided Peale with his first formal training and encouraged him to develop the fundamentals of portraiture.
In 1765, on a visit to Boston, Peale met John Singleton Copley, who also encouraged the aspiring artist to develop his talent with portrait miniatures. Shortly thereafter, Peale secured several commissions, which were sufficient to provide financial stability and enable him to become a full-time professional portrait painter.
By 1768, Peale's success impressed several patrons who granted him money to travel to London for study with the famed American artist, Benjamin West, who presided over the Royal Academy. The time spent abroad proved significant for Peale, who greatly developed his technique and style while in England. Most influential to Peale were West's complex works, which commonly depicted historical events and allegorical scenes on a grand scale. Influenced by these paintings, Peale produced in 1768 one of his early masterworks: a large-scale portrait of William Pitt, depicting the British statesman as a grand evocation of a Roman Senator.12 Peale contrived to experiment with this opulent manner of painting but ultimately concluded that this style would not appeal to the more direct and humble tastes of his American homeland. "Peale was quickly disappointed with his English training, perhaps because it had little practical relevance to the problems and limitations of painting in America. West had all but abandoned portraiture in favor of the grander art of history painting and probably had little patience with Peale's less elevated aspirations. He was unable to dissuade Peale from the basic tenet of his painting--that a scrupulous likeness of the sitter guaranteed a pleasing portrait."13 After two years in London, Peale returned to Annapolis to pursue his own style of painting and to develop his career as a portrait artist. As Peale developed, he would continue to move away from the classical genre of history painting and realize in his own work a narrative and more intimate approach to historical portraiture.
In America, Peale achieved rapid success, even while facing considerable competition from other portrait painters, including his former teacher Hesselius. Peale was quickly distinguished for his meticulous handling of paint, the smooth layered style of English painting he had learned in London, and for his ability to capture the detailed costumes of the day and the sitter's individual personage. In a letter to a friend, Peale wrote that "since my return to America, the encouragement and patronage I have met with exceed my most sanguine hopes, not only in Maryland, which is my native place, but also in Philadelphia I have considerable business...The people here have a growing taste for the arts, and are becoming more and more fond of encouraging their progress among them."14
In 1772, Peale painted Washington for the first time, producing a portrait that is treasured today as the first authentic likeness of the man who would soon emerge as America's greatest revolutionary leader. Four years later at the beginning of the War, Peale settled in Philadelphia where he joined the local militia and then subsequently enlisted in the Continental Army. As the War progressed, Peale traveled with his company of infantry while always keeping his paints and brushes close at hand. He became proficient in executing portraits, painting at least two hundred miniatures for soldiers to send home to their families. Peale was particularly fond of the practical advantage miniatures offered and the ease in which he could transport his supplies at a moment's notice should the militia be ordered to march. Peale's group of men joined Washington near Trenton to participate in the first westward crossing of the Delaware. "Since Washington destroyed all the boats that would have enabled the British to follow across the Delaware, the Americans remained for a while in peaceful encampment on the far bank. Peale earned a little money executing miniatures of his fellow-officers, and occupied himself in obtaining food for his soldiers; his soft heart could not bear to have anyone hungry."15 Over the next several weeks, and with Peale in his ranks, Washington re-grouped his army and embarked on Christmas day to execute his famous and successful attack on the Hessians encamped at Trenton. Washington pressed his success, soon taking Princeton, thereby capturing the momentum of battle and turning the tide of war in the rebels' favor for the first time since Lexington and Concord.
Peale created an impressive legacy in his time, dedicated to the preservation of art, history, and the heroic ideals of an emerging nation. He inspired a generation of new artists, including his sons Rembrandt, Raphaelle and Titian Ramsey. By 1786, he had turned his collection of paintings, including over 250 portraits of distinguished Americans and objects of natural history into America's first established museum in Philadelphia. Among his many further credits, Peale began an art academy, maintained a position as a curator at the American Philosophical Society and in 1805 was a founder of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
THE PEALE PORTRAITS OF WASHINGTON
In 1779, with the disposition of the Revolutionary War still uncertain, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania commissioned Charles Willson Peale to paint from life a portrait of George Washington, then the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army (fig. 7). The portrait was completed over a period of ten days in late January 1779 and portrays Washington at ease with his arm resting confidently on the barrel of a cannon. Peale included references to Washington's triumphs at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, which the artist had witnessed first-hand. The trophy flags of Trenton and Princeton lie at his feet, with the American flag waving triumphantly above. In the distant landscape, soldiers march on the horizon at Nassau Hall, the principal building in Princeton.
Painted in several closely-related versions, this patriotic image established Peale as the premier portrait painter in Colonial America, and it remains one of the most celebrated images of Washington by any artist. With these portraits, Peale developed an heroic realism, depicting a confident commander on the battlefield and also capturing the serene calm that Washington's soldiers often remarked was the General's most remarkable characteristic in battle. Peale executed these commissions with the hope that they would prove inspirational and that "the contemplation of it may excite others to tread in the same glorious and disinterested steps which led to public happiness and private honor."16 Receiving numerous commissions of the image, he produced both full-length and three-quarter length versions and variously illustrated the significant battlefields of Princeton, Trenton and, as seen in the present example, Yorktown. In keeping with the changes in uniform, he also updated the details on Washington's attire. At the time, the painting was also reproduced as a mezzotint and widely distributed (fig. 8). "The picture, combining the formalities of a court painting with a pleasing genuineness, was distinctly his most popular portrait of the Commander-in-Chief."17 Among his patrons were representatives of the French, Spanish and Dutch governments and "never before," wrote Peale's principal biographer, "had paintings been sent from America to Europe to hang in the palaces of kings."18 At thirty guineas each for the full-length version, the commissions were not only a welcome advance to Peale's income but also his reputation. In addition to the original portrait at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, surviving examples from this series of commissions currently reside in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Yale University Art Gallery, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, and the United States Senate.
THE CHASTELLUX FAMILY PORTRAIT
The events leading to Chastellux's acquisition of a portrait of Washington probably began in December of 1780 when Chastellux saw the original 1779 full-length portrait of the General (fig. 7). Entering the Congressional Hall in Philadelphia, Chastellux remarked that the building's "handsomest ornament is the portrait of General Washington, larger than life: He is represented on foot, in that noble and easy attitude which is natural to him; cannon, colours, and all the attributes of war form the accessories of the picture."19 He undoubtedly remembered this image when he acquired this three quarter-length version for himself two years later. Chastellux's patronage of Peale was part of an ongoing exchange of both ideas and works between the two men who had an instant affinity towards one another as they shared a wide array of talents and interests ranging from art and philosophy to nature and science. Soon before Chastellux's departure in 1783, Peale wrote to the French General:
I am very desirous to increase my obligations [to] you, the favour I further ask is that when you send me the works of Monsr Helvetius, to add those of your pen which have been published. Pray do not refuse me this favour, I shall be greatly gratified.
-Charles Willson Peale to Chastellux, December 24, 1782-January 11, 1783.20
Chastellux probably acquired the portrait while in Philadelphia during the summer in 1782 and Chastellux family lore suggests that the portrait may have been a gift from General Washington. Alternatively, the painting may have been purchased by Chastellux, as was Rochambeau's example. It was during this period that Charles Willson Peale was assembling an exhibition of portraits of notable figures and, at the request of Peale, Chastellux sat for his own portrait, which was displayed in Peale's gallery (fig. 1).21 Furthermore, the almost identical portrait owned by Rochambeau was commissioned at this time. In a letter written to the Secretary of the French legation on July 25, 1782, Peale mentioned that Rochambeau had left payment of 16 guineas for "the copy of Genl. Washington's picture."22 As these two works are the only versions with Yorktown in the background, it seems likely that the two French officers commissioned their portraits together as mementos of their recent victory.
Although completed in 1782, this portrait and the Rochambeau copy were probably begun in 1780. In each, the detailing of Yorktown is painted over an earlier scene of Princeton (fig. 9). Furthermore, with the blue satin ribbon signifying his status as Commander-In-Chief and lacking stars on the epaulettes, Washington's uniform as depicted in this portrait accurately illustrates the accoutrements he wore prior to June 18, 1780. On that day, on orders from the General himself, the blue insignia was discontinued and replaced by a series of three stars on each epaulette. While some versions of the image display both details, the lack of the stars on this portrait suggests that it was at least somewhat complete before June of 1780.23 The portrayal of Yorktown in the background clearly shows that the final touches of the painting were added after October 1781 and raises the possibility that the artist's brother, James Peale had a hand in its production. James Peale visited Yorktown soon after the siege to record the landscape and the composition of the fortifications in his work in fig. 3 is closely related to the background scene in this portrait.24
After his New England tour during the fall of 1782, Chastellux returned to Philadelphia in December. It is most likely he retrieved the portrait at this time and unframed, it was probably among his effects transported back to France on his voyage in early 1783. Soon after his sudden death, his wife gave birth to their son, Alfred, who inherited the portrait. Alfred and his wife had no issue and after her death in 1882, the portrait was inherited through several generations by the current owners, collateral descendants of the Marquis de Chastellux.
CHASTELLUX'S TRAVELS DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
July 11 Arrives in Newport with Rochambeau and the French army.
Late summer Meets George Washington for the first time.
Fall-December Travels through Pennsylvania and New Jersey where he visits earlier battle sites including the battles of Germantown and Princeton.
December 4 Visits the congressional hall in Philadelphia where he sees the full-length portrait of Washington (fig. 7).
January-May Stationed in Newport.
May 21 Attends the conference in Wethersfield, Connecticut where New York is selected as the target of an allied attack.
June-August Sets out with the French army to join Washington's troops in Westchester County, New York.
July 21 Leads a reconnaissance mission with 5000 troops at Morrisania, New York.
August 30 Arrives in Philadelphia with Washington and Rochambeau.
September 9-12 Stays at Mount Vernon with Washington and Rochambeau.
September 14 Arrives in Williamsburg with Washington and Rochambeau.
September 17 Attends strategic meeting on board the de Grasse's Ville de Paris with Washington, Rochambeau, Knox, and Duportail.
October 9 Allied forces open fire upon Yorktown.
October 15-16 Forces under his command repel a British sortie.
October 17 Cornwallis raises surrender flag.
October-December Stationed at Williamsburg.
January-April Stationed at Williamsburg.
April Travels through Virginia.
June Leads French army on their march to Baltimore.
June-August Visits Philadelphia where he sits for his portrait by Charles Willson Peale (fig. 1).
Fall Travels through northern New England.
December Stays in Philadelphia while en route to Annapolis.
January 11 Departs for France with Rochambeau from Annapolis.