Yesterday the Boston Globe’s “Brainiac” column alerted me to an article in ARTnews about a new acquisition of the New Britain Museum of American Art: a painting of George Washington on glass, from the first decade after his death and from the far side of the Northern Hemisphere.
In 1796, Martha Washington had commissioned Gilbert Stuart to paint portraits of herself and her husband, one of three times the outgoing President posed for the even more outgoing artist. Rather than finish and deliver that painting, however, Stuart kept it until his death so he and his daughter could make versions for other customers.
Furthermore, according to ARTnews:
collectors of his portraits had to sign an agreement stating that only he had the right to reproduce the image. . . .Chinese porcelain artists were already practiced in reproducing scenes and portraits for customers in Europe.
One of Stuart’s clients was John E. Swords, a Philadelphia ship captain involved in the China trade. Swords broke his promise that he would not have the image copied. He reportedly arranged to have Stuart’s painting of Washington known as the Athenaeum portrait reproduced on glass in China in an edition of about 100.
Some of the Chinese portraits of Washington came back to the U.S. of A.—because, really, where else would the biggest demand be? Stuart sued Swords in 1802. (That same year, Martha Washington died, feeling “extremely ill used” by the artist, according to a quote attributed to a family friend that I haven’t been able to confirm.)
The court told Swords to stop, but enough examples of Washington on glass made it to America that two are now in the collection of Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum.
The artifacts fit right into the P.E.M.’s focus on the China Trade, but the portrait in the New Britain Museum raises more interesting questions, according to director Douglas Hyland: “As soon as it went on display, it became the subject of a great debate: Should it be at an American art museum? Is it an American work of art?”