Monday, April 28, 2014

Portrait for the Revolution

Many famous works of art have at one time or another decorated the walls of the Old Senate Chamber. From portraits of the four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence, to Charles Willson Peale's Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown, and Edwin White’s massive Washington Resigning His Commission, the Old Senate Chamber has undergone a multitude of aesthetic changes.

One painting, though, has a particular connection to the room. Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of William Pitt has been in the hands of the state of Maryland since 1774 and was one of the original art pieces to decorate the Old Senate Chamber. While Congress was in session in Annapolis between 1783-1784, it was the Pitt portrait that overlooked such momentous events as George Washington’s resignation and the ratification of the Treaty of Paris.

Charles Willson Peale's William Pitt in the Maryland state art collection. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1113.

Originally a saddlemaker by trade, Charles Willson Peale famously exchanged a saddle for painting lessons. He demonstrated an artistic talent that attracted the attention of influential members of Annapolis society like Charles Carroll the Barrister and John Beale Bordley. In 1767, they paid his passage to London to train with the American artist, Benjamin West, thereby beginning Peale's legendary artistic career. During the time that Peale was abroad, tensions were rising between the colonies and Britain. One Whig politician in particular, William Pitt, known as the “Great Commoner,” gained enormous popularity in the colonies for his support for colonies’ rights and opposition to the Stamp Act.

When gentlemen of Westmoreland County, Virginia, approached Peale for a portrait of Pitt to display in the Virginia legislature, the artist responded to the political tension around him by creating a highly allegorical painting meant to promote republican values. Rather than depicting Pitt in the robes fitting a member of the House of Lords (which would connect him with the British aristocracy), Peale painted him in classical Roman clothing. Pitt holds the Magna Carta in his left hand, and points to the British statue of liberty with his right. An eternal flame, meant to signify liberty, shares the foreground with Pitt, and behind them stands an American Indian to symbolize the strength of the colonies. Most pointedly, the royal palace of Whitehall, where Charles I was famously beheaded as part of the English Civil War, serves as the background to the portrait, and a stern reminder to the king.

Self-Portrait of Benjamin West, c.1763, after Benjamin West. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, 1942.8.39.

It was considered improper for William Pitt to sit for the portrait of a student artist, especially one who was composing such a politically dramatic work. Instead, Peale worked from a bust of Pitt sculpted by Joseph Wilton. The work was probably not completed in his mentor’s studio; West had recently become the court painter and would have risked serious displeasure from the king to publicly condone Peale’s piece.[1] Ultimately, Peale made two versions of the painting and a mezzotint. The second and final version was delivered as promised by the terms of the original commission to Westmoreland County, where it remains today. Left with the original portrait, Peale turned to Annapolis.

Aware of the construction of a new Maryland State House, Peale undoubtedly saw an opportunity to promote his work. Upon his return to Annapolis, he wrote to Maryland's proprietary governor Robert Eden, to offer the original painting to Maryland "with a view humbly to offer the same to his Country, as a tribute of Gratitude, And presumes to entreat a favorable acceptance of that Portrait, to be placed in the State House or such other conspicuous place as shall be thought most fit and Convenient. Thus eminently to dispose of the first Fruit of his Science will much redound to his Reputation and confer an Honour which he shall forever acknowledge with Gratitude and Thanks." On April 16, 1774, Maryland accepted the portrait and, “as a compliment to Mr. Peale, request his acceptance of the sum of one hundred pounds."[2]

The painting hung above the fireplace in the Old Senate Chamber until 1834, but remained in the Senate Committee Room well into the twentieth-century. It remains one of our works of arts with the most well-documented provenance to date.

Charles Willson Peale by Adrian Lamb after self-portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1975. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1032.

William Pitt, Earl of Chatham is much more than an impressive piece of portraiture. Rather, Peale’s piece is a fascinating depiction that captured the political turbulence of the period. After the Revolutionary War, the painting’s location in the Senate’s rooms would have been a constant reminder to the new government of exactly what ideals they had fought to gain.

Currently, in-depth research into the painting’s life in the State House is underway. If you have any photos of this painting taken before 1972, we encourage you to notify or send them to us via our contact page. Your old photographs could be very important to our research!

[1] For more information on Peale and his work in the State House, please see Elaine Rice Bachmann’s “Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of George Washington for the Maryland State House: ‘Something better than a mere copy,’” Antiques Magazine, February 2007, p.66-72.
[2] Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, 16 April 1774, Archives of Maryland Volume 64, page 348.

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