Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gallery Text

In this imagined scene, Peale portrays General Washington at Yorktown, awaiting confirmation of British general Charles Cornwallis’s surrender and, hence, the colonists’ decisive victory. The future president looks beyond the picture plane, in a pose both dynamic and reserved. The viewer is cast as a witness to, and an agent of, history.

The portrait references a 1761–62 coronation portrait of King George III by Allan Ramsay. The image was disseminated widely across the Americas as a print. Depicting Washington in a stance synonymous with the king, Peale asserts Washington’s leadership as the “answer” to the question, “What comes next?”

Centuries later, how do we make meaning of Washington’s complicated legacy in relation to his enduring importance and iconic images? Washington was a lifelong enslaver who repeatedly chose not to publicly address the question of abolition. He built up his wealth through land speculation and forcibly displaced Native communities from their ancestral homes. Yet his likeness on the U.S. dollar is meant to symbolize the nation’s trustworthiness. As a university museum, we grapple daily with these contradictions of courage and cowardice.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Charles Willson Peale, American (Chester, Queen Anne's County, MD 1741 - 1827 Philadelphia, PA)
George Washington (1732-1799)
Work Type
Creation Place: North America, United States
Persistent Link
Level 2, Room 2240, European and American Art, 17th–19th century, The Arts in the Eighteenth–Century Atlantic World
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Physical Descriptions
Oil on canvas
241.3 x 145.7 cm (95 x 57 3/8 in.)
framed: 257.5 x 161 x 12.1 cm (101 3/8 x 63 3/8 x 4 3/4 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • inscription: l.l.: WASHINGTON; on document on the table, c.r.: York Virginia October 17 1781/ Articles of Capitulation drawn up/ between His Excellency General/ Washington Commander in chief of the combined forces of/ America and…
Commissioned by Gov. Benjamin Harrison for the Virginia Legislature, 1784; Thomas Jefferson, Paris, 1785; Vicomte de Noailles, by descent to great-grandson, Duc de Mouchy, sold; to Jonce J. McGurk, New York, 1930. [Martin Birnbaum] sold; to Grenville L. Winthrop, October 1942, bequest; to Fogg Art Museum, 1943.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

Sherwin McRae, Washington: His Person as Represented by the Artists. The Houdon Statue, Its History and Value., R. F. Walker (Virginia, 1873)

Elizabeth Bryant Johnston, Original Portraits of Washington, Including Statues, Monuments and Medals, J. R. Osgood and Co. (Boston, MA, 1882), pp.13-14

Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle, Memoirs of the life and works of Jean Antoine Houdon, the sculptor of Voltaire and of Washington, De Vinne Press, New York (Philadelphia, PA, 1911), pp. 184-185

John Hill Morgan and Mantle Fielding, The Life Portraits of Washington and their Replicas, Lancaster Press, Inc. (Lancaster, PA, 1931), pp. 36-37, no. 30

Gustavus A. Eisen, Portraits of Washington, R. Hamilton & Associates (New York, 1932), vol. II, pp. 366, 418

[Reproduction only], "A Special Number Devoted to the Grenville Lindall Winthrop Bequest", Bulletin of the Fogg Museum of Art, Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, November 1943)., ill. p. 64

Washington, Lafayette, Franklin: Portraits, Books, Manuscripts, Prints, Memorabilia, for the Most Part from the Collections of the University, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1944), pp. 7-10, cat. 2, ill.

Charles Coleman Sellers, "Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale", Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1952), vol. 42, pt. 1, pp. 236-237, no. 936, fig. 360

Dorothy W. Gillerman, ed., Grenville L. Winthrop: Retrospective for a Collector, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, 1969), p. 238

Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, Peter G. Huenink, Earl A. Powell III, Harry Z. Rand, and Nanette C. Sexton, American Art at Harvard, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1972), cat. 15, ill.

Louise Todd Ambler, Benjamin Franklin: A Perspective, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1975), pp. 93, 139-140, no. 80, ill. p. 93

John S. Hallam, "Charles Willson Peale and Hogarth's line of beauty", The Magazine Antiques (New York, November 1982), vol. CXXII, no 5, pp. 1074-1079, pp. 1076-1077, fig. 9

Stephan Wolohojian, ed., A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press (U.S.) (New York, 2003), p. 46

Teresa A. Carbone, American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum: Artists Born by 1876, Brooklyn Museum (New York, 2006), p. 843

Stephan Wolohojian and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, ed. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, 2008), ill. p. 125

Thomas W. Lentz, ed., Harvard University Art Museums Annual Report 2006-7, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, 2008), p. 18

Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis, ed., The Classical Tradition, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 2010), fig. 60

Maurie D. McInnis, "Revisiting Cincinnatus: Houdon's George Washington", ed. Maurie D. McInnis and Louis P. Nelson, University of Virginia Press (Charlottesville, VA, 2011), pp. 131-132, ill. p. 133

Judy Murray and Ray Williams, Engaging New Americans, Preparing for US Citizenship with the Harvard Art Museums, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2012), ill. p. 16

Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. and Melissa Renn, American Paintings at Harvard, Volume One: Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels by Artists Born before 1826, Yale University Press (U.S.) and Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge and New Haven, 2014), pp. 28, 386-88, cat. 350, ill.

Murray Whyte, "A History of Slavery, Vivdly Alive in the Present at Harvard", The Boston Globe (March 17, 2019), pp. N1, N6, p. N6

Exhibition History

Washington Lafayette Franklin, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 02/22/1944 - 05/28/1944

The American Spirit in Portraiture, 1675 - 1900, Fogg Art Museum, 01/19/1951 - 02/24/1951

American Art at Harvard, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/19/1972 - 06/18/1972

Benjamin Franklin: A Perspective, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/17/1975 - 09/22/1975

Master Paintings from the Fogg Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/13/1977 - 08/31/1977

32Q: 2240 18th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

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