J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Many Faces of George Washington

The new issue of the online early American history magazine Common-Place features Catherine E. Kelly’s article about the numerous engraved portraits of George Washington published in the late 1700s and early 1800s. She writes:

Questions about the authenticity of Washington’s likenesses initially emerged when he attained international renown as commander in chief of the Continental Army and “fictitious portraits” found their way into the marketplace. Capitalizing on Washington’s celebrity status, confidence-men-cum-artists unloaded bogus prints on unsuspecting consumers by sticking the head of some other person (real or imagined) atop a suitably dressed and posed body.

The most famous of the fictitious portraits, the so-called Campbell engravings, used various military props along with the tagline “Done from an Original Drawn from the Life by Alexander Campbell of Williamsburg in Virginia” to authenticate themselves. Variations of Campbell’s fake likeness were published in London between 1775 and 1778 and seem to have circulated mostly in Europe, although at least a few made their way back to the United States. One was presented to Washington himself, who wryly observed that the commander in chief appeared to be a “very formidable figure [with] . . . a sufficient portion of terror in the countenance.”
Those early pictures were a news medium, promising to show Europeans the leader of this distant rebellion. After winning the war, Washington became famous and beloved in America, producing a market for his portraits based on admiration and even idolization. Washington the military man gave way to Washington the statesman and eventually Washington the icon.
Well into the nineteenth century, some Americans continued to believe that an authentic portrait of Washington, be it an oil painting, a print, or a bust, had the power to reawaken and even create powerful sentiments about the founding father and by extension, the republic itself.
Not mentioned in this article on prints is another form of nineteenth-century portraiture, made possible by the Jacquard loom: a picture of a person woven on a loom in contrasting threads rather than printed. Earlier this month there was an unsuccessful eBay auction for one such portrait of Washington. I remember seeing one of these in a house museum somewhere around here—I think it was the Golden Ball Tavern in Weston, Massachusetts.

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