Washington - The Details
Colonial portraits are much more than likenesses. Especially in Virginia, they were tools used to establish and preserve a family's status as gentry. They were visual documents that reveal information about the families that commissioned them and how they wished to be perceived. Emblematic and aspirational, they contrast with the later realism of early Republic portraits.
In this portrait, Washington has pieced together a fair semblance of the uniform he wore fifteen years earlier when he was colonel of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War. He was given that rank by Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie in 1755 after the Battle of Monongahela, during which 23-year old Washington proved his leadership skills.
The date of this uniform was contemporary with the stylish 1757 clothing in his wife’s portrait. The uniform was also a public reminder in 1772 of what Washington considered to be his distinguished colonial military career defending Virginia’s frontier. It was a fact he wished to communicate to anyone who saw his portrait hanging in his home.
Washington’s provincial officer’s uniform included a blue coat with red facings and silver trim worn over red breeches and waistcoat. This coloration distinguished the colonists from fully commissioned British officers, who wore red coats. The silver gorget at Washington’s neck was a testament of his loyalty to the British crown at that pre-revolutionary moment. Deriving from the French word “gorge” meaning throat, a gorget (pronounced gor-juht) was a remnant of medieval armor positioned to protect the neck. During the 18th century, a gorget became purely ornamental and was used as a symbol of military rank.
This gilded brass gorget in the collection of the Museums at W&L dates to the 18th century and is engraved with the heraldic seal of George II, as well as the monogram in script: L T V. Its origin is unknown at present, but the example serves to illustrate the gorget worn by Washington in his portrait by Charles Willson Peale.
The Orders of March protruding from Washington’s pocket are most likely a symbol of his general military experience and not a specific event. However, one suggestion is that this small inclusion may refer to plans Washington made in 1758 at the request of British General John Forbes, who led an expedition to capture Fort Duquesne. It was Washington’s final engagement as Colonel of the 1st Virginia Regiment before he resigned from service with the British Army, disappointed that he never received a royal commission.
The sash was also a symbol of Washington’s rank as an officer. Probably silk, it would have been made using a technique called “sprang weaving,” which had the appearance of netting and produced strong elasticity. The sash was also a practical accoutrement. Large, long, and strong because of the silk, the sash could be used as a stretcher to carry wounded officers off the battlefield.
Peale’s painting, however, is more than a military portrait. In 1772, Washington was now a wealthy planter and a member of the Virginia gentry. His pose—gazing to the right with his right hand in his waistcoat—was easily recognized in the 18th century as symbolic of a gentleman. An ancient stance, it was described in the 1738 Book of Genteel Behavior by Francois Nivelon as a pose that signified “manly boldness tempered with modesty.”
Other accoutrements depicted in the painting emphasize Washington’s status as a Virginia gentleman.
During the French and Indian War, Washington carried an ordinary smallsword with a wooden grip, ordered from London in 1753. Fashions changed, however, and in 1767 he ordered a new decorative one designed as a gentleman’s elegant accessory. While alluding to a weapon once used in battle, in Peale’s portrait this new smallsword with silver hilt also declared Washington’s status as a wealthy man.
Some scholars identify the firearm that Washington holds in the portrait behind his back as a fowler, a kind of shotgun used primarily for hunting – a sport for the Virginia gentry. This would also be an appropriate inclusion that reinforces the story of Washington as a gentleman. However, a closer look at the exposed muzzle reveals a bayonet lug, therefore making this a military fusil carried by colonial officers. It is further reference to the dual role of Washington’s portrait: to show him as both a successful military officer in the French and Indian War and a plantation-owning gentleman twenty years later.
Even Peale’s placement of his subject in the painting before a wilderness landscape refers not only to Washington’s earlier military excursions, but also to his contemporary interests in westward expansion into the valuable lands of the Ohio River Valley.
Just two years before Washington posed for this portrait, he traveled to view lands in the Ohio River Valley that he and other soldiers were given by the Virginia government for enlisting in the French and Indian War in 1754. While the tents, waterfall, and lush landscape depicted in the lower left corner of Peale’s painting could allude to the earlier French and Indian War, they may also represent Washington’s interest in land and minerals for his own personal wealth.