Friday, June 6, 2014

“That Most Illustrious Character:” Peale’s Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman

Anyone who has visited the Maryland State House in the years past doubtless left with an impression of Charles Willson Peale’s Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown. One of the largest paintings decorating the building’s walls, Peale’s work has been in the Maryland state art collection since its completion in 1784. All the while, the famous Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman has had a long historical relationship with both the Old Senate Chamber and Old House of Delegates Chamber.

Charles Willson Peale's Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown, completed in 1784. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1120.

In 1781, the patriot cause saw great reason to celebrate with the American victory at Yorktown and subsequent surrender of British General Charles Cornwallis. The Maryland General Assembly sought to mark the occasion by unanimously voting “to write to Mr. Peale, of Philadelphia, to procure, as soon as may be, the portrait of his Excellency general Washington, at full length, to be placed in the house of delegates, in grateful remembrance of that most illustrious character.”[1] A Maryland native who had already earned the respect of the Maryland General Assembly with his portrait of William Pitt hanging in the Old Senate Chamber, Peale was an obvious choice for the painting’s commission. A year earlier, Peale’s painting of Washington in Princeton had garnered enough popularity, that he made several copies of the piece. However, Peale was not satisfied with the idea of presenting his native state with a copy. He sought to paint something new, and a rendition of Washington from life. Ultimately, Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman took three years to complete.

George Washington at Princeton, by Charles Willson Peale, 1780. Image courtesy of Independence Hall.

Peale ended up delivering a painting that was a portrait of three individuals, rather than one. Perhaps worried about whether the government would approve the resulting larger bill, Peale pleaded the case of the painting to Samuel Chase and the current Maryland Governor, William Paca, that it was “something better than a mere Coppy” and “those who [have] Seen this picture think it is the best I have done.”[2] Peale’s concerns turned out to be unfounded, and the House of Delegates paid the significantly larger bill without discussion. The painting was hung in the Old House of Delegates Chamber where, that same year, Washington himself came to lobby commercial rights on the Potomac River in front of his own portrait.

The portrait features Washington at the center, one of only two portraits commissioned by a state while he was still Commander-in-Chief. To his left and slightly smaller are the likenesses of the Marquis de Lafayette and Lieutenant Colonel Tench Tilghman. In the case of this painting, Lafayette was intended to symbolize the valuable assistance the French provided in the battle, while Tilghman was given an honored place as a Maryland native and Washington’s aide-de-camp who rode back to deliver news of Cornwallis’ surrender. The trio stands in front of Washington’s camp tent, recently recreated by the Museum of the American Revolution, and a scene depicting Yorktown. Peale described his rendition of the battle and the soldiers bearing standards in a letter to William Paca, “I have made in the distance a View of York & Gloster with the British army surrendering in the order in which it happened. And in the middle distance I have introduced French & American officers with Colours of their nations displayed, between them the British with their Colours cased. These figures seem to tell the story at first sight, which the more distant could not so readily do.”[3]

Images taken of the frame before it was treated by Gold Leaf Studios in 2009. The frame, original to the 1784 painting, is being conserved again as part of the Old Senate Chamber restoration. Image compiled by Bill Adair, 16 August 2013.
The frame as it appeared after its treatment in 2009, when it was on display at the Maryland Historical Society. This rare, original frame will return with its painting to the State House in December 2014. Image taken at the Maryland Historical Society by the Maryland Commission on Artistic Property.

When it came time to deliver the painting to Annapolis, Peale wrote his instructions to William Paca, declaring that “I can pack up the picture & Frame in two packing cases not very large, & send such directions as Messrs. Shaw & Chisholm may put them together, and place the picture were you wish to have it, without my being at the expence of a journey to your City.”[4] The frame was then assembled by none other than famed Annapolis cabinetmakers John Shaw and Archibald Chisholm, and has, remarkably, been preserved to this day.

Today, Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown has become one of the most valuable and recognizable pieces of art in Maryland’s collection. As part of the restoration, this painting was removed from the Old Senate Chamber in 2009, and moved to the Maryland Historical Society, where it remained visible to the public until November 2013. Our most recent conservation of the painting has uncovered some new and exciting details that will help us to restore Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman more closely to its original eighteenth-century appearance. Peale’s masterpiece will be back in December of this year, as part of the new exhibit that will coincide with the reopening of the Old Senate Chamber!

[1] Journal of the House of Delegates, 23 November 1781, Archives of Maryland Online, p.9. For more information on Peale and the commissioning of Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown, 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] Charles Willson Peale to Samuel Chase, 23 November 1784, The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, vol. 1, pp. 424-426. Also, Charles Willson Peale to William Paca, 7 September 1784.
[3] Charles Willson Peale to William Paca, 7 September 1784, The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, vol. 1.
[4] Charles Willson Peale to Samuel Chase, 23 November 1784, The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, vol. 1.


  1. If this was written in June of 2014, how about an update. You say in December of this year the painting will be on exhibit. Please let us know when.

    1. Thank you for your inquiry. The room and its exhibits are set to open to the public in early 2015. We look forward to sharing with you the conserved paintings and restored room very soon.

      In the meantime, Edwin White's Washington Resigning and frame have been returned to their place on the grand staircase in the State House after undergoing a year of conservation as part of the room's restoration. We encourage you to check that out!

    2. EARLY is a relative term. PLEASE tell us is it on display NOW or not?????