Monday, September 14, 2009

The Painter's Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art by Hugh Howard

What did Charles Willson Peale, his son Rembrandt Peale, John Trumball, Edward Savage, and Gilbert Stuart have in common, besides being portrait painters in revolutionary America and the early years of the republic? Much it turns out. They were inspired by John Smibert's picture room above his art supply shop in Boston, which was our country's first art museum. Everyone of them learned to stretch and prepare canvases, tend to brushes, and mix paints. All experienced lean times, and some landed in debtor's prison. They all sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and studied with American master Benjamin West in London. Most interestingly, according to Hugh Howard in The Painter's Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art, they all painted portraits and history scenes including the man who was our country's top general and first president.

George Washington did not enjoy sitting still for portraits, but he was a patient man with a desire to please friends and family. Having portraits of Washington especially meant a lot to his wife Martha. His colleagues commissioned many of the painting for showing in their homes or in the halls of government, often giving a copy to Mrs. Washington. The painters also kept copies from which they made more copies and engraved prints to sell. Having a painting of the new country's leading citizen with your signature was a guaranteed ticket to fame, though wealth was not assured. Gilbert Stuart was especially poor at saving money and delivering his commissioned art.

While reading Howard's insightful profiles, I started dreaming of an East Coast tour, visiting Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The artists who painted Washington established the first school of American art, which can still be seen in old houses, museums, and government buildings, mostly in the states that were the original British colonies. Using quotes from their diaries, letters, and other documents, Howard intimately recounts the days when Washington sat or stood still for them, grateful for any banter to break the tedium. Many returned to the White House or Mount Vernon to paint their subject, the best known man in America, again and again, and being gracious, Washington agreed. Color inserts show most of the paintings discussed in this entertaining, quick reading group biography. I would like to see the originals.

Howard, Hugh. The Painter's Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art. Bloomsbury Press, 2009. ISBN 9781596912441

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