Princeton University Art Museum

Sharon Lorenzo’s 6th profile of a single work of art.

As the year of 2017 ushers in the 45th President of the United States, I thought it fitting that we look at a portrait of our first president, George Washington, in the Princeton University Art Museum. Measuring 93 x 57 inches, oil on canvas, it is an imposing image which greets museum visitors at the entry to its American art collection.

The picture was done by Charles Willson Peale as a commission by the trustees of the College of New Jersey as Princeton was known in the 18th century. Washington himself made a financial contribution to the effort with a note saying, “No college has turned out better scholars or more estimable characters than Nassau.” The frame was made in 1761 and originally held a portrait of King George II until that was burned by a cannon ball which passed through a window in Nassau Hall during the actual battle of Princeton which is depicted in the rear of the portrait itself.

Princeton's University Museum of Art

On January 3, 1777 after a decisive victory at Trenton, the Continental Army proceeded north on horseback and was successful in routing British troops from Nassau Hall which they had occupied as faculty and students evacuated along with President John Witherspoon. Peale depicts the troops in retreat and a horseman waiving a white flag of surrender. The profile of Nassau Hall itself is clear amidst the smoke of the battle. Washington is accompanied by his General, Hugh Mercer, who died in the battle despite efforts by Benjamin Rush, a physician and Princeton graduate, who attends him in the foreground. On the left the musket with bayonet that wounded him points to the victim.   Both Washington and Mercer wear beautifully rendered boots with spurs, something Peale would have known well as he was an apprentice at the age of 13 to a saddle maker in Maryland.[1]

Peale had also fought as a member of the Pennsylvania militia and after the war was able to complete 60 portraits of Washington which sold rapidly in the first art market of the new nation. He depicted Washington here in formal military dress with a raised sword of victory paralleling the standard bearing the American flag, held by a yet unidentified third figure. Scholarship on portraits of George have noted that he seldom smiled as his teeth were bad with chips from cracking walnuts in his teenage years. He tried to use false ones made from ivory by a dentist Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur which survive at his home, Mount Vernon, in the form of a modeled denture. [2]

Washington sat for Peale seven times before this work was finished, and the sitter was able to see it when he visited the campus a second time for the Continental Congress of 1783. The picture was originally stored in Nassau Hall in the faculty room then moved to the Art Museum which was founded in 1882 so that more visitors could enjoy this wonderful reminder of our national leadership, history and heritage. It is the pride of the university collection which totals over 70,000 works of art for the whole community to enjoy.

Princeton University Art Museum

[1] Handbook of the Collection, Princeton University, 2007.

[2] George Washington Parker Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of George Washington, 1860, p. 520.