“The Washington Family” by Edward Savage
“The Washington Family” by Edward Savage is a life-sized group portrait that includes George Washington, Martha Washington, two of her grandchildren, and a slave.
In the winter of 1789–1790, President Washington and his wife posed for Savage in New York City, then the nation’s capital.
After a stay in England, Savage resumed the family portrait in Philadelphia in a large format and completed the large group portrait in 1796.
Prints were mass-produced beginning in 1798, and the image became famous in the 19th century and a veritable icon of our early national pride.
Washington himself ordered four prints of Savage’s engraving, hanging one in the family dining room at Mount Vernon.
The background is an idealized and imaginary view of the portico that Washington designed for the house on the Potomac River’s west bank at Mount Vernon. Also included is an enslaved man dressed in livery but of uncertain identity.
In 1759, Washington, at age 26, married Martha Dandridge Custis, the 27-year-old widow of wealthy plantation owner Daniel Parke Custis. They had no children together. They raised John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, children from her previous marriage.
Washington’s 1751 bout with smallpox is thought to have rendered him sterile, though Martha may have sustained an injury during her final child’s birth, making additional births impossible.
In this family portrait, the family includes Martha’s two grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis.
The Washingtons adopted Mrs. Washington’s grandchildren after the deaths of their parents.
Washington’s uniform, with hat and sword in the painting and the papers beneath his hand, alludes to his military and presidential career, respectively.
In between the group on the table is a plan of the future city of Washington. According to Savage’s catalog, Martha Washington points with her fan to the grand avenue, which today is the National Mall.
The young boy’s right-hand rests near the top of the globe, which lacks geographical markings but symbolizes American hopes for rising global significance.
Savage was self–taught. His ability to paint his subjects’ clothing is astonishing; however, the individuals’ anatomy and group dynamics are awkward and formal.
Despite Savage’s lack of experience, his first family portrait is one of the most famous by an early American artist.
Stipple print of “The Washington Family” by Edward Savage, 1798 – The British Museum, London
George Washington (1732 – 1799) was the United States’ first president from 1789 to 1797. Previously, he led Patriot forces to victory in the nation’s War for Independence.
He presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established the U.S. Constitution and a federal government. Washington received his initial military training and command with the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War.
He was appointed Commanding General of the Continental Army and commanded American forces allied with France in the British defeat and surrender. He resigned his military commission after a treaty to end the war with the British in 1783.
Washington was twice elected president and implemented a strong, well-financed national government while remaining impartial in a fierce rivalry between his cabinet members.
Washington owned slaves, and to preserve national unity, supported measures passed by Congress to protect slavery. However, he later became troubled with the institution of slavery and freed his slaves in a 1799 will.
He was a member of the Anglican Church and the Freemasons, and he urged broad religious freedom in his roles as general and president.
Martha Washington (1731 – 1802), although the title was not coined until after her death, served as the inaugural First Lady of the United States.
She had first married Daniel Parke Custis, with whom she had four children and was widowed by 25. Two of her children by Custis survived to young adulthood.
She brought her vast wealth to her marriage to Washington, which enabled him to buy land to add to his personal estate. The marriage helped to make Washinton one of Virginia’s wealthiest men, which increased his social standing.
The Washingtons did not have children together, but they did rear her two surviving children by her first husband.
Edward Savage (1761 – 1817) was an American portrait painter and engraver. He first worked as a goldsmith, also practicing engraving. He came into prominence in 1790 through his portrait of George Washington.
He visited London in 1791 where he studied for a time under Benjamin West, and then went to Italy. Upon his return to the United States in 1794, he practiced in Philadelphia and New York City.
The Washington Family, 1789–1796, Edward Savage
The Washington Family
- Title: The Washington Family
- Artist: Edward Savage
- Year: 1789 until 1796
- Medium: Oil on canvas
- Dimensions 7 feet (2.1 m) x 9.3 feet (2.8 m)
- Museum: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- Name: Edward Savage
- Born: 1761, Princeton, Massachusetts
- Died: 1817, Princeton, Massachusetts
- Nationality: American
- Notable works:
Who Would Be King of America if George Washington had been made a monarch?
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George Washington and Slavery
“Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”
– George Washington
Photo Credit: 1)Edward Savage, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Edward Savage, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.