"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Washington Family

This portrait of the Washington Family by Edward Savage hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
When George Washington married Martha Custis, she was a wealthy widow. In 1781 the couple adopted her orphaned grandchildren, Eleanor and George. Edward Savage's nine-foot-wide picture is the only group portrait developed from life sittings of America's first “First Family.” In 1789-1790 the Washingtons posed for studies in New York City.
From 1791 to 1794 Savage lived in London and did not resume work on the huge oil painting until he returned to the United States. On 20 February 1796 he advertised The Washington Family as the main attraction at the Columbian Gallery, his private museum in Philadelphia, where visitors could see “The President and Family, the full size of life.” Engravings after this image earned the artist a fortune, as did the entrance fees collected from his frequent exhibitions of the canvas.
Savage's catalogue states that Washington's uniform and the papers beneath his hand allude to his “Military Character” and “Presidentship.” With a map of the new District of Columbia in front of her, Martha is “pointing with her fan to the grand avenue,” now known as Pennsylvania Avenue. Because Savage had never seen Mount Vernon, he added imaginary elements such as marble columns and a liveried servant. The formal symmetry derives from British portraits in the Grand Manner, but the stiff postures and awkward anatomy reveal Savage's limited experience. – NGA
 Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

Martha Washington's grandchildren Washington Parke Custis (Washie) and Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) were the children of her her son John Parke Custis (Jackie) and Elizabeth Calvert, born at Elizabeth Calvert's family home, Mount Airy in what is today Rosaryville State Park and initially raised at Abingdon where National Airport is today. After the death of their father of Camp Fever in 1781, George and Martha Washington informally adopted them. Their older sisters, Elizabeth and Martha continued living at Abingdon with their mother.

 George Washington Parke Custis

George Washington Parke Custis would grow up to consider himself the keeper of George Washington's legacy. He built Arlington house the grounds of which became Arlington National Cemetery. His daughter Mary married Robert E. Lee. This Engraving by J. C. Buttre after a Gilbert Stuart painting appeared in Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by GWP Custis, Mary Randolph Custis and Benson Lossing, 1860.

George W. P. Custis

Eleanor Parke Custis married Lawrence Lewis in 1799. 

Eleanor Parke Custis

This 1804 portrait of her by Gilbert Stuart hangs in the National Gallery of Art.

Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis

In Savage's painting, George Washington Parke Custis rests his hand, holding dividers, on a globe while Washington rests his arm of his step-grandson.

Martha Washington and Nelly Custis are shown displaying a map of Washington DC. 

Martha is said to be pointing at Pennsylania Avenue.

But more cryptically an enslaved African American looks on. 

This obscure image is variously identified but is generally thought to be William “Billy” Lee (see this biography from Mt. Vernon and Titus Kapher's Billy Lee a Portrait in Tar.)

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