Edward Savage's The Washington Family quickly became a veritable icon of our early national pride. In the winter of 1789–1790, President Washington and his wife posed for Savage in New York City, then the nation's capital. Mrs. Washington's grandchildren, adopted by the Washingtons after the deaths of their parents, probably also sat for their oil portraits in New York. Savage began to incorporate the separate life studies of their faces into a group portrait engraved on a copper plate. After a stay in England, he resumed the family portrait in Philadelphia—this time, however, in large format as an oil on canvas. The Washington Family was exhibited in 1796.
Savage's catalogue states that Washington's uniform and the papers beneath his hand allude to his "Military Character" and "Presidentship" respectively. With a map before her, Martha Washington is "pointing with her fan to the grand avenue," now known as Pennsylvania Avenue. A servant overdressed in livery and a supposed vista down the Potomac complete the imaginary scene.
Savage's self–taught ability to distinguish between satins, gauzes, and laces is nothing short of astonishing. However, the anatomy alternates between wooden and rubbery, and the family strangely avoids eye contact. Despite Savage's lack of experience, his huge Washington Family remains one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by a federal artist.