Monday, February 17, 2014

Painting of the Day: “The Washington Family,” by Edward Savage 1789-1796

The Washington Family
Edward Savage, 1789-96
Andrew W. Mellon Collection
The National Gallery of Art, U.S.

American painter Edward Savage was known for his historical paintings and, sadly, the fact that his ambition outshone his talents. His paintings are often stiff and anatomically awkward due to his lack of formal training and natural artistic instincts. He did, however, manage to secure several well-known sitters, most notably George Washington and his family.

Washington, his wife Martha, and her children from her first marriage (she was widowed) sat for Savage in 1789-90 so that he could produce a series of sketches of the group. In 1790, Savage traveled to London where he sketched and was meant to study. He spent most of his time in England drawing and making a name for himself as a collector of art. Savage’s greatest achievement perhaps, is that of a curator more so than an artist. When he returned to New York, he opened the Columbian Gallery and is considered one of the first American museum proprietors.

In 1794, Savage began the actual painting of this nine-foot wide portrait of the Washington Family—four years after the initial sketches. Ever the master showman, he advertised this fact quite broadly and invited visitors (for a fee) to see a “life-sized” image of the first “first family.” In fact, Savage became quite wealthy from this painting—not only from the many engravings that he sold of the finished work, but by charging people to see it.

The portrait is meant to be set at Mount Vernon. However, Savage had never seen Mount Vernon and had no idea what it looked like. The background shows marble columns and a liveried footman in the English manner that Savage had learned to copy while abroad. The composition is rigid, flat and awkward, showing the artist’s lack of skill. He relied heavily on his assistants to do much of his painting for him.

Savage was quite pleased with himself for the “symbolism” of this work. He fancied that he had imbued the figure of Washington with a sense of military and presidential dignity by costuming him in his uniform and putting papers in his hand. Martha Custis Washington holds a map of the unfinished District of Columbia—pointing with her fan to what is now Pennsylvania Avenue.

It’s a curious painting indeed, but an important one as it is, as Savage would have been the first to tell you, one of the few looks we’ll ever get at the entire assembled Washington family.

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