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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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

After Trumbull—Not After Copley After All

Back in January, I saw this painting on Twitter, identified as a portrait of Gen. George Washington by John Singleton Copley.

I replied that Copley never painted Washington.

The person who posted the image reported that the Art U.K. site actually identified the portrait as after Copley, meaning another artist had copied Copley’s original.

I replied that there’s no Copley painting of Washington to copy from.

But that’s indeed what the official information about the painting says. It’s hanging in Washington Old Hall, a manor in Britain now owned by the National Trust. The Washington family had roots there. And obtaining this painting seems to have been a tribute to the first President of the U.S. of A.

Presumably, the painting was acquired at a time when every second painting from Revolutionary-era America was hopefully identified as a Copley. But now we know better.

That canvas is clearly based on John Trumbull’s painting of Washington before the Battle of Trenton. Here’s a version of that image from the Metropolitan Museum of New York. (Trumbull may have painted other copies as well.)

Art U.K. has an online forum called Art Detective, which invites the public to crowdsource questions about artwork in the national collections. I posted a comment to that site with a link to the Met’s Trumbull, and a moderator invited Washington Old Hall to join in the exchange.

And that’s where the story stands, five weeks later. The discussion doesn’t appear in the public forum. The attribution still points to Copley “(after).” The Art Detective approach is intriguing, but in this case its potential hasn’t panned out.


Donald Carleton, Jr. said...

I would continue to pursue this one, John, perhaps the Washington Old Hall folks are having trouble digesting art-historical facts that run counter to the received narrative!

David Kindy said...

In this era of "fake news," few people like to hear the truth.

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect this is a matter of institutional bureaucracy at a small historic site without full staff. The desire to have a painting by a more prestigious artist isn't, alas, confined to this era.