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The Washington Family

Edward Savage1789-1796

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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.

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  • Title: The Washington Family
  • Date Created: 1789-1796
  • Physical Dimensions: w284.2 x h213.6 cm (overall)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Andrew W. Mellon Collection
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • painter: Edward Savage
  • Theme: portrait, family
  • School: American
  • Provenance: The artist;[1] purchased from his estate, 14 November 1820, by Ethan Allen Greenwood [1779-1856], Boston;[2] sold 1839 to Moses Kimball [1809-1895], Boston, with the contents of the New England Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts;[3] sold December 1891 to (Samuel P. Avery Jr., New York);[4] sold 1892 to William Frederick Havemeyer [1850-1913], New York.[5] National Democratic Club, New York;[6] sold 15 December 1922 to (Art House, Inc., New York);[7] Thomas B. Clarke [1848-1931], New York; his estate; sold as part of the Clarke collection 29 January 1936, through (M. Knoedler & Co., New York), to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1940 to NGA. [1] Ethan Allen Greenwood, John R. Penniman, and William M.S. Doyle, "Inventory of the estate of Edward Savage, late of Princeton in the County of Worcester deceased, lying and being in Boston in the County of Suffolk," 12 September 1817, no. 51 (with his paintings of Christopher Columbus and Liberty). This inventory of the contents of Savage's museum in Boston is filed with the inventory of his property in Princeton and his administrator's accounts at the Worcester County Probate Court, Worcester, Massachusetts (photocopy, NGA curatorial file, photocopy courtesy of Georgia Barnhill, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester), series A, case 52130; see Louisa Dresser, "Edward Savage, 1761-1817," Art in America 40, no. 4 (Autumn 1952), 157-158, n. 5, and Georgia Brady Barnhill, "'Extracts from the Journals of Ethan A. Greenwood': Portrait Painter and Museum Proprietor," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 103, part 1 (October 1993), 97. [2] Bill of sale signed by Savage's son Edward Savage, Jr. (1795-1858), Boston, administrator of his father's estate; Ethan Allen Greenwood Papers, American Antiquarian Society (photocopy, NGA curatorial file, courtesy of Georgia Barnhill). The price of $1,000 was for "One Marble Statue of the Venus de Medicis and the large Painting of the Washington Family." On Greenwood see Barnhill 1993, 91-178. [3] Watkins 1917, 127-128; according to Ryan 1915, 1-2, Moses Kimball (1809-1895) bought a large part of the collection of the New England museum when he was "about thirty" and opened the new Boston Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts in 1841. A draft of a document written by Greenwood in 1839, which would have transferred ownership of the museum to Robert Gould Shaw and the Reverend Edward T. Taylor, is in the Ethan Allen Greenwood Papers, American Antiquarian Society, quoted in Barnhill 1993, 101. This transfer did not take place. [4] Letter from Moses Kimball to Samuel P. Avery, Jr., 28 December 1891, confirming the sale, in Savage's Painting of Washington and Family (album, NGA library). Kimball said that the painting, which he owned for more than fifty years, came to him "in the collection of the New England Museum that I purchased." Also in the album is a letter of 23 November 1892 from Charles H. Savage, the artist's grandson, to Avery, giving the history of the painting. [5] "An Old Portrait of the Washington Family," New York Sun, 31 December 1892 (in Savage's Painting of Washington and Family, album, NGA library) recounted the painting's history. "From this dismal seclusion [in the Boston Museum] the old painting was recovered by Mr. Samuel P. Avery, Jr., about a year ago, and after a good scrubbing with soap and water and solvent it was brought to this city. Mr. William F. Havemeyer has recently bought it to add to his extensive Museum of Washingtoniana." Havemeyer owned the painting by 3 January 1893, when collector Thomas B. Clarke wrote to Charles Henry Hart asking whether it would be an appropriate loan for the exhibition of retrospective art they were planning for the World's Columbian Exposition; they were on the advisory committee (New York Public Library, Papers of the Columbian Exposition, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.); ultimately the painting was not included in the 1893 exhibition. Havemeyer's dates are in Who Was Who in America, Historical volume, 1942, 1:535. [6] Charles Henry Hart, Edward Savage, Painter and Engraver, and his Unfinished Copper-plate of "The Congress Voting Independence", Boston, 1905, 10. [7] The name of the seller and the date of purchase are recorded in a copy of Portraits by Early American Painters of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries Collected by Thomas B. Clarke, Exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1928, annotated with information from files of M. Knoedler & Co., NY (copy in NGA curatorial records and in NGA library). The receipt for payment by Art House, Inc., dated 15 December 1922, is signed on behalf of the National Democratic Club by F. Newlin Price (NGA curatorial file).

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