Thursday, January 12, 2012

Featured Artifact: Edward Savage Painting

Edward Savage (1761-1817)
Portrait of George Washington
Circa 1795
Oil on canvas
25 X 30 inches
Morristown National Historical Park, MORR 3252

Physical Description:
This painting reveals the image of an austere and stately George Washington. The background is a dark brown bronze. In almost profile, his face bears a long nose, dark eyes, and a protruding chin. Two brown, arching eyebrows frame his slender features. Four horizontal rows, one above the other, depict his gray and white hair. In a three-quarter length bust portrait, George Washington wears a solid black coat. It is open enough to reveal a white linen shirt underneath. The linen appears to zigzag down Washington’s chest. An ornate, gilded frame adorns the oil portrait.

Attribution:The history of this George Washington portrait begins with debates about its attribution. Jennie Elizabeth Thompkins of Caldwell, New Jersey donated the painting to the Morristown National Historical Park (MNHP) on May 6, 1941. She believed Gilbert Stuart painted the portrait from life. In addition, she noted that Ebenezer Thayer, the portrait’s first owner, acquired the painting directly from Stuart in Boston or bought it from a Boston museum. The Chicago World’s Fair displayed the painting as a Gilbert Stuart; however, the Washington Centennial Exhibition at the Metropolitan Opera House exhibited the portrait under an unknown artist.[1]

After the portrait arrived in Morristown, the Frick Art Reference Library disputed the Stuart attribution. A letter from September 8, 1941, states: “[The portrait] bears no resemblance to any Stuart of which we find reproduction; it would seem, rather, to be nearer to the Edward Savage type of Washington Portrait.”[2] This letter illustrates that the Frick Art Reference Library compared the photograph of the Washington portrait from Morristown with examples of Stuart’s work. They noted that Washington’s eyes in the MNHP portrait appear dark while Gilbert Stuart’s paintings portray him with grey-blue or hazel eyes.[3] This detail, along with differences in style and technique, proved enough to discredit Gilbert Stuart’s attribution.

The park changed the official attribution to Edward Savage in 1942. The bust portrait of George Washington at the Morristown National Historical Park is an important painting in Savage’s oeuvre, or collective body of work. It displays the influence of Savage’s earlier portraits along with foreshadowing later paintings and mezzotints. While his contemporaries also painted portraits of George Washington, Savage’s portraits reflect his own unique style and technique. His paintings and engravings of George Washington have contributed to our national image of America’s first President.

[1] Information obtained from Mrs. Tompkins, April 28, 1941, MNHP, object file folder, Morr 3252.
[2] Letter from the Frick Art Reference Library to MNHP, September 8, 1941, MNHP, object file folder, Morr 3252.
[3] Letter from R. P. Tolman of the Smithsonian Institution to MNHP, September 20, 1941, MNHP, object file folder, Morr 3252.

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