George Washington, c. 1835

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By Rembrandt Peale, American, (1778-1860)
Medium: Oil on Canvas
1953 Donated by Dr. Hall Pleasants

This posthumous portrait of George Washington on a white horse was painted and signed by Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860). Rembrandt was the son of Annapolis-raised artist Charles Willson Peale and years before painting this portrait he had made sketches of George Washington when Washington sat for his father. From an early age Rembrandt believed he was destined for greatness as he was the son of Charles Willson Peale, had the name Rembrandt, and shared a birthday with his boyhood hero George Washington.

Growing up in the large Peale household Rembrandt was taught to paint, with his father as mentor. Despite the devotion to his father, Rembrandt still had his own opinions. In 1798 at age 20 he married Eleanor May Short, the daughter of the Peale’s housekeeper; she did not have a dowry nor was she his intellectual equal according to contemporary sources. His father was disappointed in Rembrandt’s choice of bride and wished that he had had a chance to study in Europe before marrying.

Four years after his marriage Rembrandt did end up studying in Europe and took Eleanor, their new baby, and his younger brother Rubens in 1802. It would be the first of many trips for Rembrandt as he later studied in Paris from 1808 to 1810, where he was influenced by French Neoclassicism. Rembrandt’s paintings displayed virtue and patriotism, themes of the early American republic. He frequently used the combination of red, black, and crisp white to depict rich textiles.

Inspired by his time in Europe, Rembrandt decided in 1814 to move to Baltimore where he opened a new museum similar to his father’s in Philadelphia. In Baltimore he created the first purpose-built museum in America. The building still stands today on Holliday Street and remains a museum, Peale Center. In 1816 he installed carbureted hydrogen gas lighting in the museum and made an investment to form a gas company, the precursor to Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE). Due to his efforts the streets of Baltimore were illuminated by February 7, 1817.

In 1822 Rembrandt passed his Baltimore museum on to his brother Rubens and he moved to New York City to pursue art full time. Rembrandt became obsessed with attempts to paint a perfect likeness of George Washington, saying it will be “my great work….an undertaking which no one else could or would attempt.” His wife Eleanor never understood his art. Eleanor once came into Rembrandt’s studio, and upon seeing all the George Washington paintings, exclaimed the deceased president was an “evil genius” keeping her husband away from her. After Eleanor’s death, Rembrandt married one of his students, Harriet Cany Peale, in 1840. She was a talented artist in her own right.

This painting was commissioned by Daniel Randall who gave it to his brother Alexander. Their father, John Randall, had been the apprentice to William Buckland, architect of the Hammond-Harwood House. Alexander was a good friend to Rembrandt’s nephew, Alexander Robinson, who arranged a meeting between Rembrandt Peale and Alexander Randall in April, 1858. During this meeting Rembrandt told Alexander that his painting was a copy he had done after his father’s piece. A full account of their meeting can be found in Alexander’s diary here.

Rembrandt was very fond of copies, stating once in 1828 that he was “an artist, long accustomed to the practice of copying, as well as producing originals…A correct copy is next in value to the original itself. No artist…can be sure that he can make a good original picture, if he is unable to make a good copy.”

George Washington by Rembrandt Peale


By Rachel Lovett, Curator

Hammond-Harwood House

The mission of the Hammond-Harwood House Association is to preserve and to interpret the architecturally significant Hammond-Harwood House Museum and its collection of fine and decorative arts, and to explore the diverse social history associated with its occupants, both free and enslaved, for the purposes of education and appreciation.
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