An icon of American art, George Washington at the Battle of Princeton monumentalizes an event central to both the University’s and the nation’s history. On January 3, 1777, following a decisive win at Trenton, the Continental Army under General Washington consolidated its unaccustomed momentum with a second victory on and around the Princeton campus of the College of New Jersey, as the school was then known, helping turn the tide of the Revolution after a series of inauspicious defeats. Completed in 1784 on commission from the trustees of the College, and installed for more than two centuries at its center in Nassau Hall, Charles Willson Peale’s dramatic image was apparently paid for with funds bestowed by Washington himself as a testimony of his respect for the institution, regarding which he wrote, "No college has turned out better scholars or more estimable characters than Nassau."
In a richly symbolic circumstance, the painting was explicitly conceived to take the place — indeed, to occupy the very frame — of a portrait of George II, "the late king of Great-Britain, which," according to the minutes of the trustees, "was torn away by a ball from the American artillery in the battle of Princeton." This unusual situation may have influenced Peale to produce a picture whose composition is distinctly more formal — more in keeping with the state portrait it was intended to replace — than the artist’s other great image of the leader, George Washington after the Battle of Princeton, completed several years earlier and reproduced by Peale in at least a dozen replicas, one of which is also at the University. That painting depicts Washington at ease during the aftermath of the conflict, with victory assured, and, as such, is more an artifact of propaganda than history painting, which accounts for its extensive reproduction and international dissemination as a diplomatic tool to bolster the new nation’s legitimacy.
By contrast, George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, as its title implies, evokes the battle itself (one that Peale had experienced firsthand as an officer of the Philadelphia militia) and makes specific reference to events from it, notably the death of Washington’s friend General Hugh Mercer, shown expiring in the arms of surgeon Benjamin Rush, a blood-stained bayonet lying at the general’s feet indicating the cause of death. With sword poised in readiness, Washington gestures to the battle raging behind him, where Continental troops, pistols and muskets blazing, force the British soldiers away from their Nassau Hall stronghold — or, in the pictorial logic of the painting, literally out of existence, off the picture plane, in the direction that Washington’s raised weapon appears to impel them. Meanwhile, a diminutive horseman bearing a white flag, just visibly rendered approaching from Nassau Hall, makes apparent that Mercer’s ultimate sacrifice, and by implication that of others in the patriot cause, had not been in vain, as American forces would carry the day and thereby gain invaluable confidence in their larger campaign against a formidable adversary.
Perhaps on account of its greater specificity, this rendition of the battle, perfectly suited to its intended destination in Nassau Hall, was not repeated by Peale and, unlike the other version at Princeton, is unique. The work is also distinguished in being painted from life. In December 1783, Washington granted Peale the fifth of his unsurpassed seven sittings with the future president to produce this portrait, which the artist completed in time for the painting’s unveiling in Princeton the following September.
Signed and dated lower left: C. W. Peale pinxt: 1784
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An Educated Eye: The Princeton University Art Museum Collection (Friday, February 22, 2008 - Sunday, June 15, 2008)