The True George Washington: Physique: Portraits

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


How far the portraits of Washington conveyed his expression is open to question. The quotation already given which said that no picture accurately resembled him in the minute traits of his person is worth noting. Furthermore, his expression varied much according to circumstances, and the painter saw it only in repose. The first time he was drawn, he wrote a friend, "Inclination having yielded to Importunity, I am now contrary to all expectation under the hands of Mr. Peale; but in so grave?so sullen a mood?and now and then under the influence of Morpheus, when some critical strokes are making, that I fancy the skill of this Gentleman's Pencil will be put to it, in describing to the World what manner of man I am." This passiveness seems to have seized him at other sittings, for in 1785 he wrote to a friend who asked him to be painted, "In for a penny, in for a Pound, is an old adage. I am so hackneyed to the touches of the painter's pencil that I am now altogether at their beck; and sit 'like Patience on a monument,' whilst they are delineating the lines of my face. It is a proof, among many others, of what habit and custom can accomplish. At first I was as impatient at the request, and as restive under the operation, as a colt is of the saddle. The next time I submitted very reluctantly, but with less flouncing. Now, no dray-horse moves more readily to his thills than I to the painter's chair." His aide, Laurens, bears this out by writing of a miniature, "The defects of this portrait are, that the visage is too long, and old age is too strongly marked in it. He is not altogether mistaken, with respect to the languor of the general's eye; for altho' his countenance when affected either by joy or anger, is full of expression, yet when the muscles are in a state of repose, his eye certainly wants animation."

One portrait which furnished Washington not a little amusement was an engraving issued in London in 1775, when interest in the "rebel General" was great. This likeness, it is needless to say, was entirely spurious, and when Reed sent a copy to head-quarters, Washington wrote to him, "Mrs. Washington desires I will thank you for the picture sent her. Mr. Campbell, whom I never saw, to my knowledge, has made a very formidable figure of the Commander-in-chief, giving him a sufficient portion of terror in his countenance."

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