Washington alive and well

Eleanor H. Gustafson Art

George Washington by Robert Field (c. 1769-1819), 1801. Initialed and dated “RF 1801” at lower right. Watercolor on ivory in gilt-brass locket, 2 ¾ by 2 ¼ inches. A plaited lock of Washington’s hair overlaid with the cipher “GW” in gold is enclosed in the back of the case. Photograph by courtesy of Skinner, Boston.

Despite the ongoing difficulties in the United States economy, to judge by a President’s Day weekend sale at Skinner Auction in Boston, Americans continue to place a lot of faith in the Founding Fathers. In lively bidding in the room and on the phone, a portrait miniature of George Washington brought $336,000-the second highest price ever paid for an American portrait miniature and some $30,000 more than a nearly identical example sold at Skinner last November. Both were painted by Robert Field at the request of Martha Washington in 1801 for presentation to two of her step-granddaughters-this one for Ann Calvert Stuart-and both descended in the family, although their exact whereabouts was not known until the recent sales. This one went to a private collector, while the one sold in November went to the Yale University Art Gallery (for more about it, see Endnotes in the January 2009 issue of the magazine, available online here). Robin Jaffee Frank of the Yale Art Gallery has kindly provided additional observations that expand on what ANTIQUES  published in January. She notes that Field “may have based the portrait at least in part on a life study since he visited Mount Vernon in 1798. Moreover, Harry Piers suggested in his 1927 monograph that Field also may have been aided by existing originals by Walter Robertson and Gilbert Stuart. Like Robertson and other portraitists of the period, Field showed Washington in uniform against the sky. But neither the facial features nor the expression of our recently acquired miniature resemble portraits of Washington by Robertson, who depicted the president with eyes set into especially deep sockets, an exaggeratedly elongated nose and face, and a solemn countenance. Field’s face may be loosely modeled on likenesses by Stuart, but Field’s portrait, with its tender smile and intimate gaze, is a unique interpretation of the president’s visage and character. Field’s miniature is not only heartfelt, it is also a beautiful work of art. His crisp draftsmanship defines the uniform and his sinuous strokes transcribe the curving contours of the face; the glowing ivory support serves to highlight the flesh tones and vigorous sgraffito provides delineation to the eyelids and irises.” Given Washington’s importance and that of these miniatures, it is not surprising that Ann Stuart’s Washington was the top seller at Skinner on Sunday. But faith in the American decorative arts and paintings markets was evident in many of the objects sold that day, including a pair of clocks by Simon Willard and a variety of patriotic items, such as an engraved powder horn from the French and Indian Wars and a William Henry Harrison presidential campaign banner, all of which did well.