Throughout the 237 years of the United States of America’s existence, George Washington’s image has stood as a reminder of the ideals upon which this nation was founded. Washington’s multitude of portraits came to represent liberty, democracy, and freedom from tyranny. How did images of an older gentleman wearing a tightly coiffed wig and barely smiling come to represent so much? A late eighteenth-century engraving in a book from the Burns Library provides some revealing answers.
In the United States, George Washington represented the new nation’s very first hero. While struggling to create a national identity in the midst of a bloody and taxing war, Americans needed an individual whose presence would act as a national center. John Hancock, president of the 1776 Continental Congress, commissioned Charles Willson Peale, the famed portrait artist, to paint one of the first wartime portraits of newly commissioned General Washington. When Peale completed the painting, Hancock transported the work from Philadelphia to Boston. He made frequent stops along the way to display this monumental portrait of Washington to as many new American citizens as possible. By so doing, Hancock began the first widespread campaign to disseminate Washington’s image. Painters and engravers around the country copied this likeness onto canvas and paper and spread the image even further.
Almost every home, schoolhouse, and public building displayed some form of Washington’s image in the late eighteenth century. When American printers needed a visual representation of ethics, intelligence, or dedication they frequently turned to Washington. The General’s image reminded Americans what their new country stood for during the American Revolution and the goals it arduously pursued in its first years of independence. Furthermore, Washington’s portrait prompted Americans to strive to replicate the values and likeness of the noble man. Americans respected George Washington as selfless, dedicated, and virtuous. Late eighteenth-century Americans’ recognition of Washington’s image allowed for less precise and visually appealing engravings to be copied after his original portraits.
One example of such an engraving sits in the frontispiece of James Murray’s An Impartial History of the War in America. The engraving, created by Boston artist John Norman, depicts Washington as Captain General of the American army. The engraving appears crude and almost unidentifiable to the modern eye. However, Americans of the late eighteenth century could easily see that it was Washington. Norman based his engraving on another of Peale’s works, Washington at the Battle of Princeton painted in 1779. Washington’s likeness in this portrait became a quintessential image—from the stark white hair curled at the ears to the stern and self-assured gaze all the way down to the figure’s moderate girth. Placed side by side, the John Norman engraving shares obvious qualities with Charles Willson Peale’s painting. The poses of the figures are similar. Moreover, Norman’s Washington wears clothing similar to, but not as finely detailed as, Peale’s Washington. However, even a cursory comparison reveals that Peale’s Washington is far more lifelike in anatomic proportion and spatial awareness. Norman’s Washington is elongated and far too small in proportion to the picture’s background. Norman engraved a face unlike the portraits by Peale and others, yet the popularity of Peale’s portrait would have made the subject of Norman’s engraving instantly recognizable.
A spectacular combination of original portraits and their copies of General George Washington reached every corner of the new American nation in the late eighteenth century. That Americans could look at a nondescript engraving such as the Norman work and instantly associate it with Washington demonstrates this country’s early awareness of its first President’s image. This widespread dissemination laid the groundwork for the importance and meaning of Washington’s likeness to popular culture of the United States for almost two and a half centuries.
- Grace Heisenbottle, BC ’13
This blog post is drawn from the exhibit “Making History Public: Books Around the World: 1400 – 1800.” This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2012 HS600 class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries. From April – December 2013, the “Making History Public” exhibit is on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. Stay tuned for more posts from this exhibit!