LONDON - This exquisite gilt-bronze sculpture is an important work from the celebrated Royal Laboratory established by King Charles III of Spain in Madrid in 1759. Dating to the 1790s, the bust was commissioned to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo with the United States, which declared a state of mutual friendship between the two nations.
The bust appears to be based on a painting of George Washington by Giuseppe Perovani, commissioned by the Spanish chargé d’affairs in Philadelphia. Washington likewise appears as a statesman, his iconic wig concealing his hair, his elegant frockcoat open, exposing the unbuttoned waistcoat and chemise underneath. The bust can only have been commissioned by a high ranking member of the Spanish court, and aside from King Charles IV, the Prime Minister Manuel Godoy is the obvious candidate, considering he owned the painted portrait and secured a coup with the signing of the treaty.
ROYAL BUEN RETIRO PIETRE DURE AND MOSAIC LABORATORY, BUST OF GEORGE WASHINGTON (1732-1799), CIRCA 1796. ESTIMATE £200,000–300,000.
The context for the creation of the Bust of George Washington is rooted in the American Revolutionary War (1775–83) in which Spain covertly supported the thirteen original colonies with funds and resources, and engaged Britain in open warfare. After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Spain was ceded Louisiana, and, later, at the Peace of Paris of 1783, was given control of West Florida (incorporating the southern parts of modern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama) and East Florida. In 1795 under the Treaty of San Lorenzo, Spain ceded to all of America’s demands, settling the question of the border of West Florida to America’s advantage, and giving American ships free navigation of the Mississippi river and the use of New Orleans as a port.
Though the terms of the treaty were not advantageous to Spain, the signing was an important diplomatic milestone. The bust was almost certainly commissioned to commemorate the event, and Godoy’s hope for a lasting friendship between Spain and the United States. Within a year, however, Godoy was out of office, Spain was facing rebellion in its North American lands, and, in 1799, America would mourn the death of its first President.