George Washington, by Rembrandt Peale
The truth of the matter is that I have a special relationship with George. It is not that he was the richest guy in the Colonies, not that he was a leader among men (women didn’t count for much those days, and some say he had more luck on his side than strategy), not that he was even a president, but that he was self-possessed and simultaneously modest.
It was the embodiment of what came to be known as the American spirit, or American values that makes me love him. When you look at George, he wears no decorations of rank or status. All military men of some standing wore shoulder macaroni, as did he. He also wore a simple stock around his neck, and a clean but modest garment. There are no metals plastered or pinned to his chest or badges of honor. There are no sashes defining to which club he might have been a member. He is just there, stately and ruddy-faced, with a relatively un-handsome big nose.
I always interpret the wooden oval around his portrait as the rough-hewn material from which he had emerged, although I am told that it indicates that by the time Rembrandt Peale made this portrait, George was dead.
One ought not leave out the painter Rembrandt Peale in all of this. He is one of our early geniuses, and it is a welcome and cherished gift that the Portland Art Museum is the recipient of a piece of his work.
My family came to America long after Washington and Peale had died. But it was easy to adopt George and the mythology around him as our own. He stood for the best in all of us. Modest, smart, enterprising, but with the wisdom to know when to step down and pass the mantle of power.
When touring students at the art museum as I do, I look for an opportunity to have those students say, “Hello, George.” And if we have time, we pull out a dollar bill and compare portraits, and we talk about transmitted values. Civic pride ought not be overlooked just because art is our major topic.
Carol Isaak, Portland Art Museum docent