Art historian Howard (Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson, 2006, etc.) persuasively asserts the centrality of the first president to the first flowering of American painting.
The American-born John Trumbull, Edward Savage, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale and his son Rembrandt all benefited from the early example of Boston’s John Smibert and his Painting Room, and the training most received at the London studio of expatriate Benjamin West, “the American Raphael.” In addition, they all painted the nation’s premier citizen and “most essential symbol.” Howard argues that by the time of his death, Washington had presided over not only the birth of a new nation, but also, as patron and subject, over the maturation of American art and the development of an unprecedented public appetite for portraiture and history painting. The author assigns walk-on roles to John Singleton Copley and Charles Bullfinch, and he recalls French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon’s working visit to Mount Vernon and the extensive preservation efforts undertaken years after the president’s death. He focuses, though, on the painters’ stories, their remarkable cross-pollination and their encounters with the dutiful main subject who, notwithstanding his own irritability and impatience at posing, appreciated the importance of appearances and precedent and understood art’s vital public function. Washington’s encouragement of the arts—aided by John Adams, Jefferson, Hancock and “the Nation’s Guest” Lafayette—engineered a cultural transformation where, before the Revolution, few Americans had even seen a painting. Howard packs his lively narrative with interesting, sometimes amusing anecdotes: Stuart, first charming then exasperating Martha Washington; Jefferson stage-managing Trumbull’s history paintings; Gouverneur Morris serving as a substitute model for Houdon; Savage’s relentless self-promotion; Rembrandt Peale’s near breakdown over trying to capture Washington on canvas.
A novel, ingeniously executed approach to the inspiring man whose dollar-bill likeness is arguably the most reproduced painted image in history.