Friday, October 11, 2013
American artist & art historian William Dunlap 1766-1839
I have long been attracted to this quirky 1783 portrait of George Washington. The story of its creation & its creator is almost as much fun as the painting itself. The Office of the United States Senate Curator, where the painting hangs, gives us the story.
William Dunlap’s pastel portrait of George Washington is remarkable as the earliest-known painting by a man better known for his invaluable publication History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834), the first attempt to chronicle the art of this country. The painting survived (despite damage by fire while it resided in San Francisco) for more than 150 years in the possession of the Van Horne family, its authenticity affirmed by Dunlap himself. In 1838, near the end of his life, Dunlap wrote a statement confirming his authorship of the Senate’s Washington pastel, briefly describing the circumstances of the sitting. Equally conclusive, and more compelling, is the story of the portrait’s origin included in his autobiography–-already published in his Rise and Progress.
Having received meager training in art from the American painter William Williams, Dunlap embarked on his youthful career in 1782 by executing portraits in “crayons” (pastels) of his father, other relatives, and friends. In the autumn of 1783, he visited Rocky Hill, New Jersey, home of John Van Horne. General Washington’s temporary headquarters was nearby while Congress was convening at Princeton College, and Washington was a frequent visitor to the Van Horne home, so Dunlap “was of course introduced to him.”
The young artist had made pastel portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Van Horne, and Washington praised them (“doubtless the mere wish to encourage youth,” according to Dunlap). As a result, Dunlap recalled, John Van Horne “requested him to sit to me and he complied. This was a triumphant moment for a boy of seventeen...but it was one of anxiety, fear and trembling.”
Although family tradition maintains that Dunlap’s portrait of Washington was executed at the Van Horne estate, Dunlap’s very specific, detailed, and charming reminiscence differs: "My visits were now frequent to head quarters. . . . The soldiers [at headquarters] were New-England yeomen’s sons, none older than twenty; their commander was Captain Howe. . . . I was astonished when the simple Yankee sentinels, deceived by my fine clothes, saluted me as I passed daily to and fro; but Captain Howe’s praise of my portrait of the general appeared to me as a thing of course, though surely he was as much deceived as his soldiers. I was quite at home in every respect at head quarters . . .[to be] noticed as the young painter, was delicious. The general’s portrait led to the sitting of the lady [Martha Washington]. I made what were thought likenesses, and presented them to Mr. and Mrs. Van Horne, taking copies for myself."
It would be pleasant to report that the portrait was as fine as the praise bestowed on the young man’s work, but, in fact, it is labored and awkward. The Continental army uniform (despite evident effort) is mostly unconvincing, from the odd abstraction of the ruffled shirtfront to the epaulets that look more like strands from an old mop. Still, to his credit, Dunlap manages to render Washington’s prominent and idiosyncratic nose with success, and the eye sockets are smoothly modeled. One spatial problem–-the viewer’s uncertainty that a neck lies behind the neck cloth–-may well be due to the fact that Dunlap had lost the sight of his right eye in a childhood accident. This loss “prevented all further regular schooling,” and Dunlap also believed that “either from nature or the above accident, I did not possess a painter’s eye for colour; but I was now devoted to painting as a profession, and I did not suspect any deficiency.”
It is much more likely that his spatial perception, rather than his color perception, was altered. But there is no need to belabor the shortcomings of a teenager’s portrait of the most famous man of his day. Dunlap was his own severest critic. Early in his artistic career, Dunlap had gone to London to study with American neoclassical painter Benjamin West.
On his return, he established himself as a portrait and miniature painter, while also working as a theatrical manager. He later painted large allegorical and religious pictures, similar to those of Benjamin West. Looking back from old age to his early painting career, Dunlap wrote, “I now intend to show the causes that, at the age of twenty-three, and after a long residence in London, left me ignorant of anatomy, perspective, drawing, and colouring, and returned me home a most incapable painter.”
In addition to painting, Dunlap spent time as a militia paymaster, was one of the founders of the National Academy of Design in New York City, and was involved in civic and cultural affairs throughout his lifetime. He remarked at one time, “The good artist who is not a good man, is a traitor to the arts, and an enemy to society.” Below are a few of his paintings of women.