In this evocative portrait of George Washington at Princeton, Charles Peale Polk renders the triumphant General in the bold, linear style he mastered after studying with his uncle and famed Washington portraitist, Charles Willson Peale. Executed during the first term of Washington's presidency, Peale Polk references his uncle's earlier portraits of Washington by including Nassau Hall, a symbolic reference to the victory of the Continental Army at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. The battle, which marked the close of the ten crucial days following the Continental Army's crossing of the Delaware River into New Jersey, took the American forces from the brink of defeat. After suffering a string of demoralizing losses in New York, the General achieved his first victories in combat at Trenton and Princeton. While the War was far from over, Washington's campaign in New Jersey demonstrated to the American people, their allies abroad, and the soldiers themselves that the Continental Army was capable of defeating the British. In this portrait, Charles Peale Polk recalls the President's victories during the Revolutionary War and his heralds ascendance to Father of the Nation.
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 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 Linda Crocker Simmons, Charles Peale Polk, 1767-1822, A Limner and his Likenesses (Washington, D.C., 1981), 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 Baltimore, 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).