Early American Painting

Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860)

George Washington, Porthole Portrait, after 1824

Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 29 3/16 in. (92.1 x 74.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.53

A founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Rembrandt Peale was a prominent portraitist during the first half of the nineteenth century. He is best remembered for his “porthole” portrait of George Washington, of which he produced some eighty versions. Enclosed within an illusionistic oval painted frame of cracked masonry, Washington gazes serenely into the distance. This is a heroic, idealized depiction of the first president of the United States that seeks to transcend the man’s actual, physical reality—thus combining portraiture with history painting. Peale’s understanding and appreciation of neoclassicism are evident in the austere quality of the face and the reference to classical ancient architecture. The painting also reflects the influence of the then current “sciences” of physiognomy and phrenology, which posited that an individual’s innate character could be read in facial features and head shape.

Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.