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Commander in Countenance: George Washington Portraits at Auction

Commander in Countenance: George Washington Portraits at Auction
January 25, 2024
Dylan Dittrich


Photos: Sotheby's

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"Your Picture will survive me, and as my mortal remains will perish, my work will live & increase in value — especially in the estimation of those who entertain a just Veneration for the Great original, whose equal among Men has not been found."

Rembrandt Peale's confident declaration to the buyer of one of his George Washington portraits proved quite prescient. While we wouldn't recommend amending it for inclusion in the lot description of your eBay listing for a Victor Wembanyama rookie card ("your PSA 10 will survive me.."), we might still learn something from the prolific portrait painter's conviction.

Peale's work did indeed increase in value, and veneration for George Washington remains prominent, even if we're not in an era of peak patriotism. That reverence is evidenced by three Washington portrait sales in one Americana-charged week, totaling $5 million.

Rembrandt Peale's "porthole" portrait was the least expensive of the three, drawing a healthy $529,200 against an estimate range of $300,000 - $500,000 at Christie's. Peale created at least 79 of the porthole paintings, and this one is the most expensive to sell at auction by a measure of 2X, with the value perhaps improved by Peale's confident letter that accompanied both its original sale and this one. The prior high watermark was $235,500, established at Christie's in 2017.

But if you're not well-acquainted with the market for Washington portraits, it will surprise you to learn that Rembrandt Peale's work wasn't even the most expensive Washington portrait painted by someone with the name "Peale" to sell last week. Over at Sotheby's, Charles Willson Peale's Washington sold for $1,633,000.

Charles was probably better known to Rembrandt as "father."

C.W. Peale, the father, was distinguished in portraiture, painting Washington from life more than any other artist. While most of his works portrayed him as a military hero, the portrait sold at Sotheby's was the only one captured by Peale during Washington's presidency. The work was commissioned in 1795 by the retiring director of the U.S. Mint, Chancellor Henry William DeSaussure. Peale saw it as an opportunity for his son, Rembrandt, to perform his first commissioned work. Overcome with nerves, Rembrandt insisted his father sit alongside him with a canvas of his own. That's how the C.W. Peale painting at Sotheby's - one of three oil-on-canvas replicas from the session - came to be.

The $1,633,000 result was well below the $2,000,000 - $3,000,000 estimate. There's little frame of reference for the result, as such a copy hadn't sold publicly since 1954. C.W. Peale's largest auction result came at Christie's back in 2006, when his painting of Washington at Princeton sold for $21,296,000. His portraits are included in prominent museum collections and key U.S. government buildings, the White House among them.

As for Rembrandt, when you compare his output from that 1795 portrait session to his father's, it looks like a Crayola doodle by comparison. It makes you wonder if that's where Dale Doback got the idea that "it's all about who you know" in Step Brothers. Of course, we're just having fun at Rembrandt's expense.

It was a fine attempt and his first real one, the learnings from which further inspired him to pursue the definitive Washington portrait. His "Equestrian Portrait" and "Washington before Yorktown" works gained acclaim, as did the original painting which he replicated in porthole form. Still, his work did not reach the heights of his father, and his auction record stands at just over $1 million, set back in 2004 for "Washington before Yorktown."

The Peales, however, both came up short of Gilbert Stuart's work last week. Stuart's, a copy of a work commissioned by John Vaughan and thus named a "Vaughan Type," was also based on a 1795 Washington sitting (sidenote: how much time did GW spend getting painted in his lifetime? Days? Weeks?!). There are fourteen such "Vaughan Type" works, and they sit in collections at The National Gallery of Art, The University of Virginia, and Harvard among others.

This particular example was consigned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, selling for an impressive $2,833,000 at Christie's against a $1,500,000 - $2,500,000 estimate. Another Vaughan Type, from the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, sold at the house for $11,562,500 in 2018. It boasted provenance from John D. Rockefeller back to its original owner, Alexander Scott.

These diligent and spirited efforts to capture the essence of, as Rembrandt Peale put it, "the Great original" remain appreciated and coveted today. Their work lives, surviving all of them and likely all of us. While you might have previously thought Bronny and LeBron James were the popular, collectible father-son duo of the moment, you might want to offer some veneration to the Peales and their portraits. We'll take them over the Bowman U cardboard any day.

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