Thursday, February 22, 2018

George Washington as Painted for a Scottish Earl, c1792

Thursday, February 22, 2018
Susan reporting,

Forget President's Day - today is the real birthday of George Washington, born on February 22, 1732 (Georgian calendar.) Two hundred eighty-six years later, he remains the best-known figure in American history: the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, the first president of the United States, and the white-haired gentleman on the one-dollar bill.

As can be imagined, Washington's image was much in demand, and over his lifetime, he sat for many portraits by many artists. The one shown here, however, is different. None of those other portraits were commissioned by a Scottish earl.

David Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829) was a man of many interests. He encouraged engineers designing new kinds of bridges, and he published an essay honoring the controversial Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun. He served both as a diplomat, and as the Grand Master of Scottish Freemasons. His correspondents included Horace Walpole, George Dyer, and George Washington, whom he greatly admired.

When Scottish-born portraitist Archibald Robertson (1765-1835) decided to pursue his career in New York in 1791, Buchan commissioned him to paint a portrait of Washington "that I might place it among those whom I most honor." (You can read the earl's entire letter to Washington here; Buchan also entrusted Robertson with a special gift for Washington, a wooden box said to be made of the oak that sheltered William Wallace.)

In Philadelphia, Robertson painted miniatures of both George and Martha Washington. His portrait of Washington, lower right, shows the president as he likely appeared in late 1791: his hair receding, his cheeks hollowed, and the strain of his responsibilities clear in the general weariness of his expression.

But the portrait he painted at the same time for the Earl of Buchan, above, shows Washington as a younger man. Not only is he portrayed wearing his general's blue and buff uniform from the Revolution, but the years and the cares have been wiped away. His cheeks and hair are fuller, his expression alert and confident: it's the face of the commander-in-chief of the 1770s. Was this done at the request of the earl, or did Robertson decide a little judicious 18thc Photoshopping might make the portrait more agreeable to his patron?

No one now knows. But when Robertson completed the portrait, Washington himself wrote to the earl that:

"The manner of the execution does no discredit, I am told, to the Artist; of whose skill favorable mention had been made to me. I was further induced to entrust the execution to Robinson [sic] from his having informed me that he had drawn others for your Lordship and knew the size which would best suit your collection." 

Unfortunately, there's no record of Buchan's reaction to the painting, but one hopes it did find an honored place in the earl's collection. According to ArtUK, over time the portrait suffered damage, was repaired, and perhaps worst of all, became mislabeled as "A Naval Officer." A cataloguer in the 1930s correctly re-identified the portrait as Washington, and in 1951, the current Earl Buchan presented the painting to Sulgrave Manor, the English birthplace of Washington's ancestors, where it hangs today.

Above: George Washington as a Younger Man by Archibald Robertson, c1791-93, Sulgrave Manor.
Below: Miniature portrait of George Washington by Archibald Robertson, 1791-1792, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


Unknown said...

What an interesting post! Thanks for researching the painting. -- P.

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