The Marriage of Washington, 1849

Oil on canvas, 40
X 55" (101.60 x 139.70 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 966-0-135

During the middle years of the nineteenth century no American historical figure was more revered and celebrated than George Washington. Orators, authors, and artists contributed to the apotheosis of this great American hero; "In all branches of Art and in all shape of Literature, WASHINGTON is now the leading subject," asserted an 1859 writer.' Of the many painters to render images of Washington, only one, Junius Brutus Stearns, offered a cyclical representation of the hero's life.
Vermont-born and trained at the National Academy of Design, Stearns began working on The Marriage of Washington in 1848. The Alexandria Gazette of September 30, 1848 noted, "Mr. J. B. Stearns ... has been for some days at Arlington House ... engaged in making very beautiful and successful copies from the original pictures of Colonel and Mrs. Washington, the one of the date of 1772, by Peale, and the other of 1759, by Woolaston [sic], with a view to the painting of a large picture of Washington's Marriage ....
" The painting, signed and dated 1849, appeared in the American Art-Union exhibition of 1850 and was part of the Art-Union's annual painting lottery, going to John M. Merrick of Wilbraham, Massachusetts.
The Marriage of Washington depicts thirty-seven elegantly-clad figures surrounding the bridal couple as the ceremony takes Place on January 6, 1759 in St. Peter's Episcopal Church, New Kent County, Virginia. Behind the handsome George and the demur widow Martha Dandridge Custis stand three bridesmaids and Martha's daughter, who looks toward her brother seated with their grandparents. The composition, with its emphasis on fine costume, successfully evokes the mid-nineteenth century's conception of the chivalric days of the Old Dominion. Also, the work significantly contributes to the contemporary interest in humanizing Washington and in making the hero accessible.
The Marriage of Washington triggered Stearns's desire to paint a cycle chronicling the life of the hero.
He indicated this to the Executive Committee of the American Art-Union when soliciting a commission to undertake a cycle in four works, which the American Art-Union declined. Stearns, however, not only proceeded with his plan, expanding the series to five works, but also wrote Merrick asking him to send his marriage painting to Paris so that a print could be made, which appeared as the lithograph, Life of George Washington: The Citizen (1854).
While the artist's letters and an American Art Union label affixed to the stretcher of the Butler Institute's painting testify to its being exhibited and distributed by the Art-Union, the painting's precise chronological relationship to a nearly identical composition-also signed and dated 1849-in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is problematic. Both pictures' rendering of figures, their rounded top corners, and their dimensions appear virtually identical. The only difference is that the two figures on the right, male and female, are depicted as African Americans in the Butler Institute work. Why Stearns chose to include an African-American couple in one image and not the other remains a mystery. Occurring at a moment of increasing national division over the question of slavery, Stearns's inclusion and exclusion of two African Americans in the margins of the scene is certainly intriguing. While slavery proponents and opponents alike cited Washington as a benign master, the historical veracity of showing slaves attending his wedding is highly questionable.
Although he painted numerous historical, portrait, genre, and fishing pictures, Junius Brutus Stearns remains best known for his images chronicling the life of George Washington. Historically important, the Butler Institute's The Marriage of Washington inspired the artist to create his series and wonderfully exemplifies the mid-nineteenth- century desire to humanize America's greatest hero.