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Portrait of George Washington

Adolph Ulrich Wertmüller, Swedish (active United States), 1751 - 1811

Made in United States, North and Central America


Oil on canvas

25 3/8 x 21 1/8 inches (64.4 x 53.7 cm)

Curatorial Department:
American Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Wagner, 1986

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Trained in history painting and portraiture at the art academies of Sweden and France, Wertmüller studied under the neoclassical painter Joseph Marie Vien (French, 1716-1809) and served as court painter to King Gustaf III of Sweden. The unstable political environment in Europe provoked by the French Revolution (1789-99) undermined his patronage, however, and his democratic sympathies led him to Philadelphia, where in 1794 the well-established portraitist Charles Willson Peale welcomed him into the city's artistic life.

Like Peale and Gilbert Stuart (another great American portraitist of the period), Wertmüller was given the opportunity to paint George Washington from life and, like them, he hoped a demand for replicas would produce a steady income. In this likeness, executed in a strongly modeled academic style, Wertmüller depicts Washington as statesman rather than general. The velvet coat and cascading lace jabot document the president's love of fine dress and place him in the company of the wealthy, international social and political elites he routinely met in the elegant Philadelphia homes of the McKeans and Powels.

Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    Adolph Ulrich Wertmüller had a successful career in his native Sweden and in France before he came to Philadelphia, the capital of the new United States, in the 1790s. He, like scores of other artists, was hoping for commissions for portraits of statesmen and government officials, of whom George Washington was certainly the most desired. Washington, aware of his symbolic importance, complied with many requests for portraits, and posed for Wertmuller in Independence Hall in 1794. This painting, which is strikingly different from Gilbert Stuart's iconic image, familiar from the dollar bill, was given to the Museum by descendants of the family that had purchased it from the artist's estate. Wertmüller's emphasis on the texture of Washington's velvet suit, the dusting on his shoulders from his freshly powdered hair, and his frilly lace jabot characterizes the president as something a dandy, just as his representation of a long, thin face and close-set eyes gives Washington an aristocratic appearance, which must have appealed to the sizeable faction who wanted the new government to have the splendor of a court with a kingly chief executive. Darrel Sewell, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 269.

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