Peale’s iconic Washington portrait returns to W&L The W&L-owned portrait, which has been on loan to Mount Vernon, will be displayed in a new Reeves Museum exhibit, which opened to the public on May 24.
The notable portrait “George Washington as Colonel in the Virginia Regiment” by Charles Willson Peale, which was loaned to George Washington’s Mount Vernon in 2018, has returned to Washington and Lee University. It will be displayed in a new exhibit, “Parlor Portraits: George and Martha Washington,” which opened in the Reeves Museum on May 24.
The famous painting is the first of seven portraits of Washington by Peale and the only portrait of Washington by any artist that predates the American Revolution. It belongs to a set of historic portraits that was donated to W&L in the 19th century by one of Robert E. Lee’s children. The collection includes over two dozen portraits of the Custis and Lee families, both significant in the history of Virginia, as well as Peale’s portraits of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette.
The Peale portrait loan was part of a temporary exchange which brought Mount Vernon’s portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, one of the artist’s own replicas of his famous “Athenaeum” version, to W&L in 2018.
“We were delighted to partner with Mount Vernon on this exchange,” said Washington and Lee President Will Dudley. “The Peale portrait was the centerpiece of two major exhibits during its time at Mount Vernon, which welcomes one million visitors each year. Sharing such an historic work of art from our collection with so many people is in keeping with our educational mission. But we are thrilled to bring this incomparable portrait of our namesake home for permanent display at W&L.”
The original impetus for Peale’s portrait of Washington was an earlier portrait of his wife, Martha Custis, painted in 1757 by John Wollaston, which is also part of the W&L collection. Following her marriage to George Washington, that portrait of Martha, along with portraits of her children from her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, hung in the front parlor of Mount Vernon. Noting Washington’s absence from the display, Martha commissioned his portrait from Peale to add to the parlor walls.
The new exhibit will honor and recreate that history, displaying a replica of the Wollaston portrait alongside the Peale portrait, until the original Wollaston portrait returns to W&L from Mount Vernon in 2025.
“The backstory behind the Peale portrait of George Washington is often overlooked,” said Rainville. “It began as a family portrait. The Reeves Museum building that houses ‘Parlor Portraits’ was originally an 1842 house, and the new exhibit puts the portraits back into their authentic, domestic context — that of a parlor in a historic house.”
“The domestic setting also offers us the opportunity to highlight examples of the 302-piece table service purchased in 1786 by Washington,” Rainville continued. “He and his wife used the service, decorated with the emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati, at Mount Vernon and later at the president’s mansions in New York and Philadelphia.”
The Peale portrait is not the only notable portrait of Washington on campus. Among them is W&L’s own Gilbert Stuart replica of the Athenaeum portrait, dating circa 1810.
“Our Stuart painting is part of the ‘Setting the Stage’ exhibit in the ground floor level of University Chapel. This historic work depicts Washington during the second term of his presidency, when he donated canal stock to the fledging Liberty Hall Academy,” said Rainville.
“Parlor Portraits” opened to the public on May 24, and can be viewed during open gallery hours of the Reeves Museum of Ceramics from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Read more about the history of the Peale and Stuart portraits at columns.wlu.edu/wl-mount-vernon-announce-mutual-loan-of-washington-portraits/. To learn more about the original location of Peale’s portrait of Washington, visit mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/the-mansion/front-parlor/.