One of the last artists to paint George Washington from life, Rembrandt Peale produced his first likeness of President Washington in 1795, at just seventeen years of age. At the artist's request, the sitting was arranged by his father, Charles Willson Peale, both men aware that this portrait sketch (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) could serve as a model for subsequent paintings and thereby sustain the young artist's career. In a later manuscript, Rembrandt Peale recalled the events of the day, "...the hour he appointed was 7 o'clock in the morning. I was up before daylight, putting everything in the best condition for the sitting with which I was to be honored, but could scarcely mix my colors, and was conscious that my anxiety would overpower me and that I should fail in my purpose unless my father would agree to take a canvas alongside me and thus give me an assurance that the sittings would not be unprofitable, by affording the double chance for a likeness. This had the effect to calm my nerves, and I enjoyed the rare advantage of studying the desired countenance whilst in familiar conversation with my father." As noted by Carol Hevner, Rembrandt's portrait was an artistic success. "The image which resulted from this sitting is remarkable in terms of Washington portraiture," she writes. "It may best be described as a life study. It contrasts markedly with his father's portrait, done at the same time, in both its freer handling and greater realism of details. The seventeen year old Rembrandt reported what he saw--an aging, and tired, yet strong and dignified man. For Rembrandt this portrait was the trophy of his youth and the aide-memoire of his maturity. It was created out of an intense desire to know and possess the true likeness which could then be used as a touchstone in creating more formal and iconic portraits." (Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860: A Life in the Arts, Philadelphia, 1985, p. 32)
The sketch provided the basis for Peale's many famous images of our first President. Of these, the most imposing are his equestrian portraits of Washington as the leader of the Continental Army, among them the present work, which the art historian E.P. Richardson dates among his earliest. In a letter, Richardson suggests that Rembrandt likely painted this work after his 1808 trip to Paris, where he had the opportunity to see similar equestrian compositions by European masters. "That is where I place this Washington and the two other versions," writes Richardson, concluding that in these paintings, "RP was making his first attempt to arrive at a GREAT WASHINGTON." (letter to Larry Fleishman, September 17, 1982) In the present work, Peale depicts Washington on horseback as a solitary figure. With his hat atop his head, the general sits astride his horse and looks directly at the viewer. Washington's character here is very much in the vein of the artist's first sketch of 1795--direct and forceful, while also conveying Washington's famously serene demeanor, one of his most remarked about traits in the thick of a battle.
Equestrian Portrait of George Washington relates to a later group of equestrian portraits created in the 1820s which depict Washington and his generals at Yorktown. The largest and most monumental of these paintings is the life-sized Washington Before Yorktown (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which depicts Washington in the center of an elaborate composition that includes "[the Marquis de] Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, General Henry Knox, and Count Rochambeau in a landscape that imagined the events just preceding the surrender of the British at Yorktown in October 1781." (L.B. Miller, In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, Washington, D.C., 1992, p. 145) Peale also produced two smaller versions, including another work of the same title sold in these rooms on November 30, 1999. In each of these works, Peale shows the general with his arm extended, holding out his tri-corn hat as if emphasizing an order to his men.
In contrast to the historical formality of the Yorktown compositions where Peale depicts a multitude of generals with an army encampment in the background, in the present painting Peale places Washington at the edge of a forest with only a red glow at the horizon to suggest the battle near at hand. With Equestrian Portrait of George Washington and other works of Washington, Peale strove to create a definitive portrait of the greatest hero of the Revolution, a "national portrait and standard likeness." Discussing this legacy, Lillian Milles notes that the Washington portraits strove to convey much more than a likeness. In celebrating Washington, they also served as a moral metaphor for American character and aspirations as seen through the achievements of Washington. "[Rembrandt Peale] made available in historically informed images what many men and women of his generation considered to be the central concerns of their lives, and he enlightened a path by which they could realize the rewards of virtue." (The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770-1870, Washington, D.C., 1996, pp. 163, 167)