Painted in about 1780 in France, this portrait stands as one of the earliest replicas of Charles Willson Peale’s iconic portrayal of George Washington and symbolizes the Franco-American alliance that led to victory and American independence. In 1779, Peale was commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania to execute a likeness of the Commander-in-Chief and his life-size, full-length depiction of Washington celebrates a key moment in the Revolutionary War—the victories at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton on December 26, 1776 and January 3, 1777. After a year of defeat and retreat, the American forces were embattled by late 1776 when Thomas Paine famously declared, “These are the times that try men’s souls” (The American Crisis, 23 December 1776). Under Washington’s command, the tide turned with victories in Trenton and then Princeton, now known as “ten crucial days” by historians. While Peale’s original portrait hung in the State House (Independence Hall), several copies painted by Peale were sent abroad to promote the ongoing fight for American Independence (Christie’s, New York, George Washington at Princeton from the Collection of Mrs. J. Insley Blair, 21 January 2006, lot 547).
Evidence strongly indicates that the portrait offered here was painted by the French artist Pierre Augustin Thomire (1724-1808) and that he was directly inspired by the copy painted by Peale and presented to Louis XVI in 1779. In composition and execution, this portrait relates closely to an example signed “Thomire/ 1780” now in the Union Club in New York City and the two are undoubtedly by the same hand. Comparison with known works and signatures of Pierre Augustin Thomire confirm that he is the artist who signed the Union Club example. Born in Paris and recorded as living there in 1769, Thomire was also active in Bordeaux. In 1773, he is noted to have painted portraits of the French royal family for Catherine the Great, an association that suggests he would later have had access to Peale’s portrait hanging at Versailles (for the discovery of the Thomire signature in 1933 and similarities among these four portraits, see John Hill Morgan Research Files, The Frick Collection/ Frick Art Reference Library Archives, MS.08, Box 2, folders 1-41). Furthermore, of all the known versions by Peale, it is the example made for Louis XVI, as well as one other dated 1779 (fig. 1), that are closest to Thomire’s renditions. As enumerated by Charles Coleman Sellers, Peale made subtle alterations to his versions of the portrait, which can be placed in chronological order. Peale's first portrait lacks the figures on the left and the blue flag on the right is at the height of Washington’s head and below. In Peale's other (fig. 1) 1779 portraits, the figures are included and the blue flag has been raised, but remains rigid. In later versions, Peale places the flag even higher and depicts it billowing in the wind while making further changes to Washington’s dress to keep up-to-date with regulations for an officer’s uniform, such as adding stars to the epaulettes and removing the blue sash (Charles Coleman Sellers, Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale (1952), pp. 225-233).
Dated 1780, the Union Club portrait was executed in the midst of the Revolution and before Peale had completed his series. Assuming that the example offered here was painted around the same time, its commission indicates that there was a significant appetite in France for imagery of the American General while he was fighting for independence. At least two other examples that appear to be by the same hand are known and are now in The Huntington in San Marino, California (fig. 2) and a private collection (see Sotheby’s, New York, 3 December 1992, lot 19). The French government’s military and financial support of the Revolution, secured by Benjamin Franklin in early 1778, meant that the French people were also heavily invested in the outcome of the War. Furthermore, although the French Revolution was nine years away, the American fight for liberty resonated deeply at this time among many of France’s citizens. Thomire’s renditions of Peale’s portrait, therefore, are among the earliest works of art celebrating this important alliance.
While the four paintings all seemingly by Thomire vary in size, they are on a smaller scale than Peale’s life-size full-lengths. Another artist known to have executed small-scale versions of the same scene was Charles Willson Peale’s brother, James Peale, who beginning in 1779, worked in his brother’s studio. Aside from differences in modelling and execution, James Peale’s examples diverge from Thomire’s in a number of details and depict Yorktown (rather than Princeton) in the background, George Washington with a ceremonial sword (rather than a sabre) and riding crop but lacking the blue sash and key fob, and green and white (rather than green and blue) standards at the lower right. All of these details contrast with Thomire’s works, which are more faithful to the elder Peale’s life-size portraits (Sellers, p. 226; for an example of James Peale’s version, see The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession no. 85.1).
The painting of Washington by Ch. W. Peale belonged to my aunt Mlle de la Fresnaye at the end of the last century. The tradition was that this painting was brought from America during the times of Louis XVI by a friend of Rochambeau. The painting was requested by the French Government for the World’s Fair in St. Louis. It was taken to America to be placed in the salon of honor of the French Commissariat, among the Gobelins that decorated this salon.
-P. de Nolhac to Monsieur Seligmann, 26 December 1921
Although incorrectly identifying its artist and American origins, the above provides clues to the painting’s nineteenth and perhaps late eighteenth-century history. It is an extract of a letter written by Pierre Girauld de Nolhac (1859-1936), the last known family owner of the portrait, and provided by the art dealer Jacques Seligmann & Co. to later owners in the Schiff family. Nolhac was the curator at Versailles and his “aunt Mlle. de la Fresnaye” was most likely his wife’s aunt Marguerite de la Frenaye (circa 1856-1940). Nolhac’s wife, Alix de Go?s de Mézcyrac (1862-1939) was the daughter of Marie de la Frenaye (1836-1897) and was very close to her aunt Marguerite who was only six years older. Marguerite remained unmarried and spent much of her time with the Nolhac family at their Paris residence, 3 Rue de Lille, or their country estate, the chateau Vert-en-Drouais. Among Alix and Marguerite’s direct ancestors, there are several who were prominent in the French court around the time this painting was executed. One of these was “le marquis David de Lastours,” who in 1789 was the King’s first page. This very well could be the individual listed as “Charles-Henry David, vicomte de Lastours,” a soldier in the Boulonnais regiment who fought under Rochambeau in the American Revolution and the basis for the family tradition that the painting was owned by a friend of Rochambeau’s (Claire Salvy, Pierre de Nolhac, 1859-1936 (2009), pp. 27-28, 31). Although no corroborating evidence can be found, it is likely that the painting offered here was, as Nolhac states, on display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Nolhac’s letter refers to another example—“a copy and inferior in technique”—in the collections at Versailles and it is this second painting that John Hill Morgan and Mantle Fielding claim was at the same fair. Hence, it seems very likely that at least one of these paintings was included and as Nolhac was curator at Versailles in 1904, his seems to be the most reliable information (Copy of letter, P. de Nolhac to Monsieur Seligmann, 26 December 1921, Yale University Art Gallery files).
World War I witnessed a revival of the Franco-American alliance and this painting’s French provenance most likely greatly appealed to its next private owner, Mortimer Loeb Schiff (1877-1931) of New York City and Oyster Bay, Long Island. The painting was acquired directly from Nolhac by the firm of Jacques Seligmann & Co., who owned the painting in joint account with the firm M. Knoedler & Co. In 1925, Seligmann wrote to Schiff, his long-time client and friend, and gave a detailed account of its history in France no doubt because he knew of Schiff’s allegiances. Eight years previously, Seligmann had written to Schiff from Paris days after America had joined the War: “I do not need to write you, because you certainly know it, that Paris is flagged with American and French flags, and the friendship which the French people have for the Americans and especially for you and Mr. Kahn [Schiff’s business partner], because we often read in the papers of your kind charity for our countrymen” (letters, Jacques Seligmann to Schiff, April 17, 1917 and Jacques Seligmann & Co. to Mortimer L. Schiff, April 11, 1925, Jacques Seligmann & Co. records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Box 6, folder 11, no. 59 and Box 86, folder 18, no. 1). Schiff, active in the Jewish War Board, even travelled to France in 1918-1919 to assist with their work (Lee Joseph Levinger, A Jewish Chaplain in France (New York, 1921), pp. 108-109).
The son of a German immigrant, Schiff was a partner in his father’s investment bank, Kuhn, Loeb and Company, and among his many interests, amassed an impressive collection of fine and decorative arts. This painting may have adorned his apartment on Fifth Avenue or his estate, Northwood, in Oyster Bay. After his death, the collection was inherited by his son, John M. Schiff, who sold much of it at auction. He worked in his father’s firm, which in 1977 merged with Lehmann Brothers. This painting was among the art works of his father’s that John M. Schiff kept and after his death in 1987, it was given to his alma mater, Yale University.