Stuart is the great original of the First President of the U.S., Peale of the Colonial Officer, Sharpless of the man.
-George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857).
Writing shortly before his death, George Washington Parke Custis shared his opinions on the merits of several of the portraits of his step-grandfather and adopted father. The 1796 picture in crayon by Sharples, he noted, was “the finest and purest likeness of the Chief” and “the best likeness of the man extant” (Letters, George W.P. Custis to T.W.C. Moore, June 6 and July 21, 1857, transcribed in “George Washington Parke Custis’s Opinion of Portraits of Washington,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 18, no. 1 (1894), pp. 82-84). The image was also popular in the late 1790s when Sharples sold numerous replicas of his original 1796 portrait, charging $15 for the profile format seen here. The portrait offered here descended along with a Sharples portrait of Alexander Hamilton and the first owner of the portrait of Hamilton in the following lot also appears to have owned a Sharples of Washington. This suggests that at least on some occasions, Sharples sold Washington-Hamilton portraits in pairs, perhaps at a slight discount in price.
The earliest known owner of this work is James Randall Lake (1851-1925), who sold this portrait, along with a Sharples portrait of Hamilton, for a total of $540 in 1910 to the Macbeth Galleries. Born and died in St. Louis, Missouri, Lake worked in Washington D.C. and New York City as a clerk in the Treasury Department and later as a Customs official and lawyer. In 1895, he married Elizabeth Sayres (1863-1911) of Jamaica, New York and soon thereafter the couple moved to Maplewood, New Jersey. It is possible that these portraits descended in her family as her great-grandfather, Isaac Sayre (1762-1842), served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War. After acquiring the two Sharples portraits from Lake, Macbeth Galleries sold them for a $60 profit to collector and scholar Charles Henry Hart (1847-1918), who then sold the Hamilton to Alexander Smith Cochran and the Washington portrait offered here to Herbert L. Pratt (1871-1945). A major figure in the oil industry and head of the Standard Oil Company, Pratt amassed a large art collection with a focus on portraits and miniatures. In 1937, he was elected a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and upon his death in 1945, a large part of his collection was bequeathed to his alma mater, Amherst College. The portrait offered here descended to his daughter and was later sold by her descendants to the Boston firm Childs Gallery. See Macbeth Gallery Records, Box 104, Folder 1: Cash Books 1910-1912, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Theodore M. Banta, Sayre Family (New York, 1901), p. 151.