un exelente retrato del General Washigton (hecho por Stewand) [sic]
--El Constitucional Caraqueno, Caracas, 15 November 1824.
…and though a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it; for, the only idea that we now have of George Washington, is associated with Stuart’s Washington.
--John Neal, Randolph: A Novel (1823).
First executed from life in 1796, the likeness captured by Gilbert Stuart in his “Athenaeum” type portraits of George Washington was so popular and widely disseminated that it soon became and remains today the image most readily associated with America’s first President. The portrait offered here may be the work of Stuart's studio or an early replica by another artist closely following Stuart's celebrated image. It is further distinguished by an illustrious provenance from those seeking to replicate Washington’s triumphs in South America. By 1824, the portrait was in Caracas, Venezuela where it decorated a sumptuous banquet celebrating Lafayette’s recent arrival in North America and Bolívar’s revolutionary successes in South America. As recorded in a 1979 bill of sale, the portrait was owned by Dr. Samuel D. Forsyth (Forsythe) (d. 1841), doctor to Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) and fellow revolutionary, then either given to or otherwise acquired by Bolívar and subsequently owned by General Carlos Soublette (1789-1870), President of Venezuela, who had fought alongside “El Libertador” in the 1810s and 1820s. Key players in the various struggles for independence from Spanish rule in South America, the portrait’s early owners revered George Washington as a Revolutionary hero and this portrait stands as a tangible relic of their fervent admiration for the victor of America’s War of Independence. That the portrait was passed from one revolutionary to another during the nineteenth century rather than along family lines is further testament of its value to those who treasured it most as symbolic of the fight for liberty. With a sawtooth-shaped queue ribbon and lace shirt ruffle, the portrait offered here is most closely related in compositional details to those by Stuart ascribed by Dr. Ellen Miles to his years in Philadelphia from 1796 to 1803 (Ellen G. Miles, catalogue entry, Gilbert Stuart (New York, 2004), p. 157).
Containing specific and obscure information, the history of the portrait as detailed in the 1979 bill of sale including its ownership by Bolívar is supported by an 1824 description of a party at Forsyth’s house, the known relationships among the early owners, Bolívar’s professed admiration of Washington and the condition of the portrait, which with horizontal crease marks indicates that canvas was stored in the rolled position, as it would have been during an extended journey at sea. The earliest owner recorded on the bill was Forsyth, a little known figure, but one who dedicated his life to struggles against Spanish rule in the Americas. While he has been described as having English or Scottish roots, one source notes that he was born in Virginia (Escritos Del Libertador (Sociedad Bolivariana de Venezuela), vol. IX, 26 December 1815-29 December 1816, p. 27). He first appears in the documentary record as a surgeon’s mate in the US Army in 1807 and in 1812-1813 was part of the Gutiérrez–Magee Expedition, a US-Mexican force that fought against Spanish control in Texas. After practicing medicine in Rapides, Louisiana, he moved to Venezuela and by February 1816 was serving as Simón Bolívar’s doctor. In 1819, when Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, “the Hero of Lake Erie,” visited Venezuelan officials in Angostura, Forsyth accompanied Perry on his return journey as his own surgeon was ill and the Commodore was suffering from yellow fever. Despite Forsyth’s administrations, Perry died a few days later (James A. Bernsen, “Origins and Motivations of the Gutiérrez-Magee Filibusters,” (M.A. thesis, Texas State University, December 2016), p. 78; Mordecai Morgan, “Account of the Inflamatory Bilious or Yellow Fever at Angostura… with the particulars of the Illness and Death of Commodore Oliver H. Perry” (Trinidad, 25th August 1819) in The Eclectic Repertory and Analytical Review, Medical and Philosophical, vol. IX, no. XXXVI (Philadelphia, 1819), pp. 534-543).
Forsyth, however, was more than a doctor and became an important figure in Bolívar’s inner circle. In 1818, he was described as “one of the most respectable men in Angostura, who had the very best means of learning or seeing the events of the last two years,” he served as interpreter during Perry’s negotiations and the chaplain on Perry’s voyage noted that he relied on Dr. Forsyth for details of the Venezuela’s officers and territorial gains (Maury Baker, “The Voyage of the U.S. Schooner Nonsuch up the Orinoco: Journal of the Perry Mission of 1819 to South America,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 30, no. 4 (November, 1950), p. 498). In 1820, Forsyth was sent back to the US by Bolívar to procure arms for his forces. Forsyth had meetings with President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who described him as “the ambidexter personage who is a sort of Agent here from Venezuela, and has been winding up-stairs here to get appointed Agent from the United States to that country” and implied that Forsyth had previously been critical of Bolívar’s character, but now considered him “greatly improved by his experience” and “quite a great man” (cited in Bernsen, p. 79). Forsyth later became a merchant in La Guaira before moving to back to Caracas where he died in 1841 (Escritos Del Libertador (Sociedad Bolivariana de Venezuela), vol. IX, 26 December 1815-29 December 1816, p. 27).
Simón Bolívar: “The George Washington of South America”—the Marquis de Lafayette
On October 19th, 1824, Forsyth hosted a banquet for Bolívar and twenty of Venezuela’s leading military figures at his Caracas home in honor of the recent arrival of General Lafayette in America. Through the décor and speeches, the event was clearly intended to portray Bolívar as the successor of Washington and Lafayette. The table’s centrepiece was a palm with the cap of freedom emblazoned with the names “La Fayette, Washington, y Bolívar” and alongside a portrait of Bolívar hung “un exelente retrato del General Washigton (hecho por Stewand [sic]) (an excellent portrait of General Washington (made by Stuart),” undoubtedly a reference to the work offered here. Forsyth may have acquired the portrait prior to 1816, when he first known to have been in Venezuela, or during his 1820 trip to America; it is also possible that he ordered it from abroad and had it shipped. Oliver Hazard Perry’s presence in Venezuela and close contact with Forsyth provides another possibility. Interestingly, Perry sat for Gilbert Stuart in the artist’s Boston studio in 1818 shortly before his departure for South America (Lawrence Park, Gilbert Stuart: An Illustrated Descriptive List of His Works, vol. 2 (New York, 1926), pp. 589-590, no. 630). Though his own portrait was finished years later, Perry may have purchased this portrait of Washington from the artist's studio or had a copy made knowing that it could be used as a diplomatic gift on his upcoming voyage.
As noted in the 1979 bill of sale, the portrait was owned by Bolívar and it was very likely a gift from Forsyth to Bolívar sometime after the 1824 banquet and before Bolívar's death in 1830. Bolívar’s admiration of Washington was widely known and Forsyth would have been well aware that such a present would be greatly appreciated. In 1825, George Washington Parke Custis, the step-son of Washington, presented Lafayette with a portrait miniature of the first President with instructions he deliver it to Bolívar. Lafayette travelled to Caracas but was unable to give it in person as Bolívar was in Peru. When Bolívar returned the following year, he wrote to Custis and profusely thanked him for the gift, which he described as “a holy relic of this father of liberty.” Thereafter, Bolívar wore the miniature during all official engagements and insisted it be included in his portraits (Niles' Weekly Register, vol. 31 (Baltimore, 23 September 1826), p. 63; “Las Joyas del Libertador: El Medallón de Washington,” http://www.monedasdevenezuela.net, accessed 10 December 2017). The portrait is next recorded as the property of Carlos Soublette (1789-1870), a military general who had fought under Bolívar in the 1810s and 1820s. At the time of Bolívar’s death in 1830, he was the Secretary of War and Navy of Venezuela and from 1843 to 1847, served as President of Venezuela. The portrait’s ownership after Soublette’s death in 1870 is not known, but it was later owned by the Venezuelan artist, Federico Brandt (1878-1932) and features in one of his works entitled Interior con Divan y Retrato de Washington (Interior with Sofa and Portrait of Washington) (Ernesto Armitano, Federico Brandt (Caracas, 1972), no. 346). Like the portrait’s previous owners, Brandt had a personal connection to the liberation of Venezuela. His great grandfather was Cristóbal Mendoza (1772-1829), “the Hero of Independence,” who served as Venezuela’s first President from 1810-1811 and later as an advisor to Bolívar. The portrait was next owned by his daughter, Julia Brandt (1913-1998), who like her father was a renowned painter.
By April 1929, the present lot was on consignment with M. Knoedler & Company in New York and the firm’s record books note that in 1940 it was “returned to owner through Paul [illeg.]” with “Mr. Parker McCollester” written above, suggesting that by that time, McCollester had purchased the portrait. Born in Michigan, Parker McCollester (1890-1954) received his law degree from Harvard and after serving in World War I, was a partner at Lord, Day & Lord in New York where he lived with his family at 24 Gramercy Park (M. Knoedler & Co., Commission Book 3, p. 33 (CA-182), Knoedler Getty Archive, available at http://www.getty.edu; "P. M'Collester, 63, A Noted Attorney," The New York Times, 13 January 1954). Subsequently, the portrait was at the Knoedler galleries in 1968, either on consignment or as part of an exhibition, and on loan to the Brooklyn Museum from 1977 to 1980.