The Painter's Chair George Washington and the Making of American Art

Hugh Howard

Bloomsbury Press




320 Pages



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"I am so hackneyed to the touches of the painters pencil, that I am now altogether at their beck . . . no dray moves more readily to the Thill, than I do to the Painters Chair."—George Washington, May 16, 1785

Hugh Howard's The Painter's Chair takes an eloquent new look at the beginnings of the American republic—through the portraits of its first icon, George Washington, and the painters who defined him. When George Washington was born, the New World had virtually no artists. Over the course of his life and career, a cultural transformation would occur. Virtually everyone regarded Washington as America's indispensable man, and the early painters and sculptors were no exception. Hugh Howard brings to life the founding fathers of American painting, and the elusive Washington himself, through the history of their portraits. We meet Charles Willson Peale, the comrade-in-arms; John Trumbull, the aristocrat; Benjamin West, the mentor; and Gilbert Stuart, the brilliant wastrel and most gifted painter of his day.

Howard's narrative traces Washington's interaction with these and other artists, while offering a fresh and intimate portrait of the first president. The Painter's Chair is an engaging narrative of how America's first painters toiled to create an art worthy of the new republic, and of the hero whom they turned into an icon.


Praise for The Painter's Chair

"Howard, who has written extensively about the Founding Father's attitudes toward architecture, has produced in The Painter's Chair a serious work of art history. Alternating Washington's turns in the chair with episodes in the lives of painters such as John Trumbull and Gilbert Stuart, he shows us how the course of human events in the young nation helped to break new ground in image-making as well."—Michael Moynihan, Wilson Quarterly

"This engaging book presents a portrait of George Washington predicated on his encounters with the many painters who depicted him during the Revolutionary era. Calling on extensive primary source material, particularly diaries and personal correspondence, independent scholar Howard illuminates how the deification of Washington as the embodiment of the new nation helped prompt the growth of an American art market and a national visual culture composed of copies, engravings, mezzotints, woodcuts, and etchings. Howard opens with Washington's death at Mount Vernon and the manifold portraits and pictures that surrounded him. Then he returns to the beginning, chronicling the artists who sought audiences with the commander in chief and first president in order to establish their reputations as fine artists. They include Charles Willson Peale, French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, John Trumbull, Edward Savage, Gilbert Stuart, and Rembrandt Peale. Although the book does not address the portraits themselves or the popularity of portraiture in Colonial America generally, it does present a dynamic picture of a young nation clamoring for symbols of nationhood and the artists who sought to capture that market by representing Washington. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers."—K. A. Schwain, University of Missouri—Columbia, Choice magazine

"[A] lively narrative . . . A novel, ingeniously executed approach to the inspiring man whose dollar-bill likeness is arguably the most reproduced painted image in history."Kirkus Reviews

"Patron of the arts is not the first association one makes with George Washington, but Howard elegantly makes the case that the founder of the nation also helped establish America's art. Though architecture, not painting, was Washington's preferred art, America's first prominent artists painted him: Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, Benjamin West and Gilbert Stuart, the most distinguished American painter of the period. Washington, who Howard argues was 'easier to see and admire than to understand,' is subtly revealed in a narrative that is precisely paced and elegantly composed."Publishers Weekly

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  • Hugh Howard

  • Hugh Howard's numerous books include Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson; the definitive Thomas Jefferson, Architect; his memoir House-Dreams; and most recently the very successful Houses of the Founding Fathers.