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George Washington

George Washington
signed and dated 'CP Polk/Pinx/1793' (lower right)
oil on canvas
30 x 23 in. (76.2 x 58.4 cm.)
Painted in 1793.
Charles Frederick Gunther, Chicago, Illinois, before 1892.
Stan V. Henkels, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 13 November 1917, lot 14, sold by the above.
Thomas Benedict Clarke, New York.
American Art Association, New York, 7 January 1919, lot 19.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, acquired from the above.
Clarence Whybrow, England, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, New York City, Westchester, New York and Detroit, Michigan, acquired from the above, 1920.
George Washington Crawford, Emlenton and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, (possibly) acquired from the above.
Private collection, Pennsylvania, gift from the above.
By descent.
Christie’s, New York, 30 November 2006, lot 107, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above.
“Valued by a Nation, Relics that Tell of the Life of George Washington,” The Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1892, p. 34.
J.H. Morgan, M. Fielding, The Life Portraits of Washington and Their Replicas, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1931, pp. 135-36, no. 15.
G.A. Eisen, Portraits of Washington, vol. 2, New York, 1932, pp. 406, 625, pl. CXXVI, illustrated.
L.C. Simmons, Charles Peale Polk: A Limner and His Likenesses, Washington, D.C., 1981, p. 32, no. 30.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

Set against a stormy background with swirling clouds in red and grey, this portrait of George Washington by Charles Peale Polk is a particularly dramatic version of the artist’s iconic portrayals of the General. These works were based upon the bust-size “Convention” portrait by Polk’s uncle, adopted father and mentor, Charles Willson Peale (1787, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia). Like the majority of Polk’s renditions, the portrait replicates the head painted by Peale but is a half-length and depicts more of the General’s uniform, which features the three-star epaulets designating his rank as Commander-in-Chief. Here, the abstract background allows for a greater focus on the subject and distinguishes this work from those with battleground references. A closely related example was owned in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century and like the example offered here, is signed and dated 1793 (current whereabouts unknown, see J.H. Suydam, “The deVries Portrait of Washington,” Magazine of American History, vol. 21, January-June 1889, pp. 113-118; L.C. Simmons, Charles Peale Polk: A Limner and His Likenesses, Washington D.C., 1981, p. 32, no. 29). Three other examples by Polk also have abstract or plain backgrounds but are cropped slightly tighter like Peale’s original work with three rather than four of the large buttons visible on the jacket (in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum and a private collection; see Simmons, p. 26, nos. 11, 12 and Christie’s, New York, 21-22 January 2021, lot 108).

By 1892, the portrait was in the collection of Charles Frederick Gunther (1837-1920), a Chicago confectionary manufacturing magnate known as “the Candy Man.” Born in Germany, Gunther immigrated to Pennsylvania with his family as a three-year old and subsequently the family moved to Peru, Illinois. He was in Memphis, Tennessee upon the outbreak of the Civil War and either by choice or fear of recrimination assisted Confederate soldiers navigate the Mississippi River, for which he was briefly imprisoned by Union troops. He began his career as a salesman for a candy company and by 1871 had established a substantial business that was destroyed in the Chicago fire of that year. He re-built his company and through advertising and inventions, such as Cracker Jacks in 1893, amassed a fortune. He collected art and historical artifacts on an immense scale. In addition to focused areas such as items relating to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Gunther’s collection comprised items as diverse as the Libby Prison, relocated from Richmond, Virginia, John Brown’s fort and snakeskin that was purported to be that from the Biblical serpent that tempted Eve. That he tried, but did not succeed, to acquire a pyramid from Egypt and Independence Hall from Philadelphia speaks to his ambitions and collecting fervor. In an 1892 article on his Washington collection a reference is made to the work offered here: “A portrait by Polk is…looked upon as a rare and valuable one” (“Valued by a Nation, Relics that Tell of the Life of George Washington,” The Chicago Tribune, March 6 1892, p. 34). The bulk of Gunther’s collection was acquired by the Chicago Historical Society and to this day serves as the basis of the institution’s holdings (Mike Conklin, “CHS treasure trove came from little-known Gunther,” Chicago Tribune, August 12 2001, p. 109).

This portrait was among a select group from Gunther’s collection that was sold by the Philadelphia auctioneer Stan V. Henkels in 1917. At this sale, it was acquired by the renowned collector Thomas B. Clarke (1848-1931), and sold by him just two years later. At the 1919 sale, it was purchased for $1,100 by the firm Knoedler & Co. and according to the company’s stock book was sold for $1,500 the following year to Clarence Whybrow (1859-1943), an English-born interior designer who lived in numerous locales in the US. One of these was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the next owner resided, and it is likely that Whybrow sold the work to George Washington Crawford (1861-1935) in the 1920s or early 1930s. Crawford was a wealthy executive in the oil and gas industry, at one time chairman of the Columbia Gas & Electric Co., among the largest utility companies in the US at the time. He was also the father of Martha Sharpe Crawford (1932-2008), who inherited $100 million upon her father’s death. An heiress and socialite, she was better known as Sunny Von Bulow, whose second husband was convicted but later acquitted of her attempted murder. Prior to his death in 1935, Crawford gave this portrait to a colleague who also worked at the Columbia Gas Co. It passed down to his son, who consigned it to auction in 2006.

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