REMBRANDT PEALE 1778-1860
Porthole Portrait of George Washington, 1795
Oil on canvas, 36 X 29" (91.44 x 73.66 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 957-0-124
Al though known as a member of one of America's most famous artistic families, only recently has Rembrandt Peale emerged from the group as an individual who virtually embodied the industrious, experimental, yet above all fickle age of capitalism in which he lived. Ever seeking imaginative means by which to weave the production and appreciation of art into the fabric of the American democratic enterprise-working in many of America's growing cities and founding a museum to foster national taste-Rembrandt Peale forged a career for himself characterized as much by failure as success. But, whereas such fits and starts were once considered reason to overlook him, the persistence with which he met them is now thought by one scholar to be the quality that makes him "quintessentially American." Raised in the long shadows of his accomplished artist-father, Charles Willson Peale, and the heroes and statesmen whose portraits lined the walls of his father's gallery, Rembrandt was, in a sense, surrounded by the achievements of past masters. The challenge to distinguish himself as an artist was compounded by a lack of public interest in the arts, his poor business skills, and his desire to depart from the well-trodden path of portrait painting. However, it was as a portraitist that Peale was able to support his large family and combine his high-minded, nationalist ideals with an art that appealed to a large audience. Having first painted George Washington in 1795, and having won acclaim for his Patriae Pater (1824, Collection of the United States Senate, Washington, D.C.), Rembrandt stated in the 1850s that his true calling was "to multiply the Countenance of Washington.113 By his death in 1860 he had done so no less than seventy-nine times, systematically producing simplified versions of the Patriae Pater that became known as the porthole portraits, of which the Butler Institute's is one.
Possibly seeking to surpass his father in painting America's great figures, Rembrandt sought to capture the visage of the founding father both for the edification of the public and as the crowning achievement of his career. He perceived himself singularly qualified to paint what he called the "standard likeness" of Washington, writing that, 'Among the few persons now living, who can speak of their own impressions . . . concerning the personal appearance of Washington, I may be supposed to have some claim on the confidence of the rising generation-educated to venerate the memory of him, who will always be 'first in the hearts of his countrymen!" Emphasizing the fact that he had painted Washington from life, Rembrandt supported his claim by soliciting testimonials from other men who knew Washington personally and could confirm the accuracy of his portrait. He sought to distinguish himself from other artists who had painted the first president from life, and at last to match the accomplishments of his father, whom he acknowledged as having painted "the first portrait of Washington in 1772.
Rembrandt's insistence on the importance of his direct contact with Washington is ironic. With his subject long dead, his Patriae Pater and the subsequent porthole portraits were actually composites of his 1795 portrait and others he had admired, such as the famous bust by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. Nevertheless, his enterprise was a success, coming at a time of renewed interest in Washington as a national hero. The importance of Rembrandt Peale's icon-making to the evolution of American culture has been confirmed most recently in the potency of 1960s Pop Art images, and by that movement's revelation of our society's ongoing interest in icon creation.