Remembering Washington: A Painting of The Washington Family at Dumbarton House

Written by: James Stewart, Docent at Dumbarton House

On August 24, 1814, during the British invasion, Dolly Madison directed Jean Pierre Sioussat, the French born doorkeeper, and Paul Jennings, an enslaved servant, to save a Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of George Washington (c. 1796) from the President’s Mansion. Two gentlemen from New York took the painting to safety while Dolly went to Charles Carroll’s home in Georgetown (now called Dumbarton House). While masterpieces including portraits by well-known artists such as Gilbert Stuart, Charles Wilson Peale, or Edward Savage are crucial to how the United States remembers our first President, there are countless other images of Washington some by unknown artists that Americans collected in the nineteenth century. Dolly’s insistence on saving a portrait of Washington and the popularity of Washington images demonstrate the importance of the first President to the people of the new nation. This article will explore the idea of remembering George Washington in the Federal Period by examining a German reverse painting on glass of Edward Savage’s The Washington Family, c. 1830-1850, in the Dumbarton House collection (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Edward Savage, an American painter and engraver, completed The Washington Family painting in the National Gallery of Art collection in 1796 (Figure 2). Dumbarton House’s reverse painting on display in the Best Chamber of Dumbarton House is based on Savage’s artwork. The main figures in both images are George Washington and Martha Washington with Martha’s two grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis (called “Wash”) and Eleanor Washington Parke Custis (called “Nelly”). Behind Martha in both paintings is an unidentified enslaved servant who might be William Lee, a valet who served Washington throughout the President’s life. The Washington Family contains many references to the new capital city on the banks of the Potomac. George Washington, in full military attire, puts his hand on a map of the new Federal City. Martha uses her fan to point to the location of Pennsylvania Avenue. The overall message of the image is that President George Washington, a wealthy slave owner and revolutionary hero, supports the building of the new capital city for the future generations of Americans represented by Wash and Nelly. This image of Washington and his family was popular and copied using serval different mediums.

Figure 2

Two mediums used to circulate images of Washington for reproduction were prints and reverse paintings. Reverse painting was originally developed in Europe but during the 19th-century Americans imported reverse glass paintings from both Europe and China. To create the copy, the artist first traced a print of the original painting on the front of the glass. After the initial trace was done the artist turned over the work and filled in the color. When the painting is done, the tracing on the unpainted side of the glass was erased. Edward Savage created an engraving of The Washington Family painting in 1798 which was widely circulated. The German artist that created the reverse glass painting probably had access to Edward Savage’s print. It was usual for the glass painter to change or exclude details from the original work. For example, the view of the Potomac behind the curtain and the checkerboard floor are missing from the reverse painting of The Washington Family. Also, the details on the map that identify it as the Federal City are not in the reverse painting. It was the individuals and main composition that mattered to the American consumer who would instantly recognize the first President and his family.

Smaller reproductions of larger works depicting George Washington including The Washington Family provided Americans with an intimate reminder of the nation’s leader in their own homes. Images of Washington were full of symbolic meaning depending on what image you owned. There were countless paintings, prints, sculptures and ceramics with Washington’s image created after his death in 1799 and throughout the nineteenth century. He was a symbol of the American Revolution and a father of the nation. The Nourse family and other elite families involved in the Federal government viewed the images of Washington as an example of political virtue that would sustain the values of the capital city and the American Republic.

To learn more, see:

Bellion, Wendy. “Phantasmagoric Washington.” In Citizen Spector: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Cao, Maggie. “Washington in China: A Media History of Reverse Painting on Glass.” Commonplace: The Journal of Early American Life. Summer 2015. http://commonplace.online/article/washington-in-china-a-media-history-of-reverse-painting-on-glass/.

Casper, Scott. “First First Family: Seventy Years with Edward Savage’s “The Washington Family,” Imprint: Journal of the American Historical Print Collection Society 24, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 2-15.

Good, Cassandra. “Washington Family Fortune: Lineage and Capital in Nineteenth-Century America.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 18, no. 1 (Winter 2020): 90-133.

Manca, Joseph. “A Theology of Architecture: Edward Savage’s Portrait of George Washington and His Family.” Notes in the History of Art 31, no. 1 (Fall 2011): 29-36.

Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 146-158.

Pitch, Anthony. The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998.