Galleries 286 and 287, second floor
Charles Willson Peale's George Washington at Princeton is on view at the Museum on an extended loan from a private collection. This visually striking and finely executed life-size portrait records Washington's 6-foot-2-inch frame in a pose projecting strength, composure, and elegance. It is installed adjacent to the Powel House parlor, a period room from one of Philadelphia's greatest eighteenth-century private homes, where Washington was frequently entertained by his friends, Samuel and Elizabeth Powel. Both spaces contain important examples of furniture by Philadelphia's finest craftsmen, such as Thomas Affleck and John Aitken. Among these is a side chair commissioned by the Washingtons during their Philadelphia residence, as well as porcelain from their dining service.
Painted in Philadelphia in 1779, Peale's painting was immediately sent to Europe to boost Washington's reputation as a leader and promote the cause of the American Revolution, then in progress. Later, during Europe's Napoleonic Wars, a Spanish duke with strong democratic sympathies owned the picture. At that time he added the ornate carved inscription to its frame, which describes Washington as "a liberator of his country who renounced absolute power."
This display links the lives of George Washington, Charles Willson Peale, and their mutual friend John Cadwalader before, during, and after America's transition from a British colony to an independent nation. Washington's victory at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, closely followed his famous victory at Trenton on December 26, 1776. Together, these two events dispelled the brutal defeats of the previous year and infused new life into the revolutionary cause.
During this time Brigadier General John Cadwalader (1742–1786), an affluent and widely respected Philadelphia patriot distinguished for his military and political leadership, was among Washington's most trusted friends and valued military advisors. Washington judged him to be "a military genius, of a decisive and independent spirit." For his part, Cadwalader pledged to Washington that "there is no person in America more firmly attached to you as Commander in Chief & to the General Cause."
Charles Willson Peale served directly under Cadwalader's command at Princeton as a captain in the Pennsylvania militia. The artist's presence at the battle made him uniquely suited to commemorate the event. Prior to the Revolution, Peale painted portraits of both Washington and Cadwalader, the latter being one of Peale's earliest and most generous patrons who encouraged him to relocate from his native Maryland to Philadelphia. Cadwalader's commission of five family portraits, on view in the Powel House parlor, attests to this. Peale painted important individuals of post-Revolutionary Philadelphia as well, such as Chief Justice Thomas McKean and his family, represented in the gallery by two ambitious double portraits of 1787 also from the Museum's collection.
As the nation's capital from 1790 through 1800, Philadelphia became an international city and Washington became a magnet for portraitists ranging from the British-trained American Gilbert Stuart to the Swedish émigré artist Adolph-Ulrich Wertmüller (1751–1811). The latter's 1794 life portrait of a velvet-clad Washington, which hangs across from Peale's portrait of Washington as general, reminds us that as president, Washington was routinely in the company of national and international social, political, and financial elites in the elegant homes of Philadelphia friends like the McKeans and Powels.
American Art Department Staff; website commentary by Carol Soltis, Consulting Curator, The Center for American Art