Thursday, August 28, 2014

Charles Willson Peale and the Seven Governors

Edwin White’s Washington Resigning His Commission and Charles Willson Peale’s Washington, Lafayette, and Tilghman at Yorktown are not the only valuable paintings under conservation for this restoration! In fact, a slew of portraits in the state art collection, dating from Peale’s 1774 portrait of William Pitt all the way to the 1970s campaign of crafting copies of portraits of many of Maryland’s founders have become candidates for conservation. Among the slew of fascinating stories attached to the art of the Maryland State House, there is one with a particularly long history. Between 1823 and 1825, Charles Willson Peale painted the portraits of seven of Maryland’s first governors, several of whom played prominent roles in Maryland’s Revolutionary War past and some even in Washington’s resignation!

Detail of Charles Willson Peale's portrait of John Hoskins Stone, 1824, while under conservation as part of the Old Senate Chamber restoration. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1057.

In 1823, the esteemed Revolutionary artist, Charles Willson Peale, whose portraits of William Pitt and Washington, Lafayette, and Tilghman at Yorktown were both hanging in the Maryland State House, had coveted a portrait in the state’s collection of the fifth Lord Baltimore, Charles Calvert. The portrait, which Peale had long admired as a child, had become significantly damaged. In order to get it, and to fulfill his goal of becoming the founder of a great collection, Peale struck a deal with the state of Maryland. In exchange for the portrait of the fifth Lord Baltimore, the 82 year-old Peale would paint seven portraits of deceased Maryland governors.

Thomas Johnson, the first governor of the state of Maryland, by Charles Willson Peale, 1824. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1119.

Between 1823 and 1825, Peale worked on locating and copying portraits of the deceased men. In total, he painted the first seven governors: William Smallwood, George Plater, John Eager Howard, John H. Stone, William Paca, Thomas Johnson, and Samuel Sprigg. Many of the portraits were copied from previous portraits Peale, or in some cases his son, Rembrandt, had done of the sitters. The full portrait of William Paca in the state's art collection, for instance, served as the model for his latest Paca piece.

As he had hoped, Peale received the portrait of Charles Calvert as compensation for his work. Though many residents of Annapolis complained that the Maryland government had parted with a piece of its history to a private citizen, many also noticed that Peale had repaid them with a valuable addition to their collection. The portraits of Maryland’s seven governors became the base for the collection of governor’s portraits in the state collection. Even today, and perhaps because of Peale’s original seven, the state continues to acquire portraits of its governors after they leave office. These portraits become a part of state-owned collection when they are unveiled.

At the time of Washington's resignation, William Paca was serving as Governor of Maryland. Charles Willson Peale, 1823. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1056.
William Smallwood, by Charles Willson Peale, 1823. In 1783, General Smallwood welcomed Washington at the Annapolis city gates. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1054.

Six of Charles Willson Peale’s portraits of the seven Maryland governors are currently undergoing conservation along with several other paintings in our collection for the purpose of being displayed in the Old Senate Chamber exhibit. These paintings will be once again available to the public when the Old Senate Chamber’s exhibit reopens at the end of this year!

John Eager Howard, by Charles Willson Peale, 1823. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1053.

Perhaps some are wondering why these nineteenth-century paintings of deceased Maryland governors would be of interest to the Old Senate Chamber restoration. Clearly, these paintings were not in the room in 1783 when Washington resigned his commission. However, while the paintings may not have been there, many of the subjects of the portraits were in attendance! Even for the few who were not, all of the men contributed greatly to the state in the years surrounding the Revolutionary War and six will appear in a featured display in our exhibit. Apart from the subjects, Charles Willson Peale’s contribution to the state’s art collection, and the pieces selected for our exhibit, could never be ignored in an exhibit like the Old Senate Chamber’s.

George Plater by Charles Willson Peale, 1825, is currently under conservation as part of the Old Senate Chamber restoration, 11 July 2014. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1118.

You may wonder why we are going to such effort to conserve many of these portraits, along with several other paintings, in the collection as part of the restoration. The answer is simple. Much like the 1940 restoration left a significant legacy when it turned up several original 1790s furnishings, the careful conservation of numerous objects in Maryland’s state art collection will be the legacy of this project. When this restoration is completed at the end of this year, these paintings will all have undergone a conservation that will last through future generations.

Be sure to check out six of Charles Willson Peale's last great contributions to Maryland's art collection when the Old Senate Chamber reopens in December of this year!

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