Charles Peale Polk 1767 - 1822
- Charles Peale Polk
- George Washington at Princeton
signed Cs. Polk Painter and numbered No. 30 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
Sold: Christie, Manson and Woods, London, February 19, 1971, lot 125
James A. Williams, Savannah, Georgia
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 1971
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Linda Crocker Simmons, Charles Peale Polk, 1767-1822, A Limner and His Likenesses, Washington D.C., 1981, no. 18, p. 28, illustrated
Charles Peale Polk painted a series of portraits of George Washington during the early part of Washington's presidency, in response to overwhelming public demand for images of the nation's new leader. Polk had trained under his uncle, Charles Willson Peale, having moved in with the Peale family at the age of nine following his mother's death and his father's acceptance of a permanent commission at sea. When Polk began his series of presidential portraits, he based his likeness of Washington on Peale's 1787 "Convention" portrait, modifying Peale's formal, bust-length depiction into a distinctive composition of his own: a half-length portrait showing the President on the battlefield at Princeton, New Jersey. The inclusion of Nassau Hall and a line of soldiers in the background was also borrowed from Peale, who had popularized the image of Washington at the battle of Princeton, where Peale had commanded a company of Philadelphia militia on the front lines. Though Polk was only ten years old at the time of the battle in 1777, he would have heard stories of the campaign from his uncle and was well aware of its historical significance. In Polk's version of Washington at Princeton, a subject he painted at least fifty-seven times, the president appears at the height of his military service as commander-in-chief of the American forces, his blue and buff general's uniform updated to include three stars on the epaulet, the designation for commander-in-chief beginning in 1780.
Whether or not Washington ever sat for Charles Peale Polk remains a mystery. In 1790 Polk traveled to New York, then the seat of the American government, and wrote to Washington that he hoped "... to obtain the Honorable privilege of One Short Setting from the President to enable him to finish a portrait of your Excellency (in head Size) Prepared with that design. He has in the Course of the last year Executed Fifty Portraits tho his advantages were not what he wished. But Imagines if your Excellency's Leisure and Inclination will permit he shall hereafter be capable of Exhibiting more Just and Finished performances. The resemblance of Him, whose Character will never be obliterated from the hearts of True Americans" (Charles Peale Polk to George Washington, 6 August 1790, The Papers of George Washington, Library of Congress). Washington's diary, where he typically recorded his portrait sittings, is unlocated for the year 1790.
The present painting documents a critical period in the development of Polk's uniquely American style. Linda Crocker Simmons writes that between 1791 and 1798, "[Polk's] personal style emerged. The modeling of forms became subordinate to draftsmanship. A pronounced interest in the decorative quality of the line was evident. All objects were presented with equal attention to detail, further enhancing the shallowness of the space and the decorative qualities of the whole" (Charles Peale Polk, 1767-1822: A Limner and his Likenesses, p. 9). Polk's portraits of Washington demonstrate the emergence of his own distinct style, and constitute a highly individual contribution to the body of early Presidential portraiture. In contrast to his Peale cousins, Polk's style actually became less academic as he matured as an artist, and the influence of European-trained Charles Willson Peale waned.