Young Col. Washington came home to Mount Vernon packed in a foam-lined wooden box that was fastened with 14 screws and labeled “keep dry.”
He had been away for 216 years, but inside his gilded frame he still looked soldierly in his red waistcoat and pale sash. Around his neck he wore a silver officer’s pendant, marked with the British royal coat of arms.
And his face was that of a confident man, accustomed to command.
This was the youthful George Washington painted in his 40s by the artist Charles Willson Peale. The famous portrait returned to display at Mount Vernon on Thursday for the first time since 1802.
Here was not the dour, white-haired figure on the dollar bill, nor the black-clad older man with bad dentures depicted in other portraits.
This was the earliest known painting of the country’s first president and the man who would lead the Colonial forces to victory in the Revolutionary War.
The painting,“George Washington as Colonel in the Virginia Regiment,” was uncrated and hung with care in Mount Vernon’s Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, where it opened to the public Thursday.
It will be on display for the next two years.
“We always mourn [Mount Vernon pieces] that got away,” said Susan P. Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s executive director for historic preservation and collections.
Now one is back.
“It’s absolutely thrilling to be able to experience the young George Washington instead of the battle-worn Washington,” she said. “It’s the only likeness that we have of him depicting his appearance prior to the Revolutionary War.”
The painting is on loan from Washington and Lee University. In October, the university, grappling with is complex history, decided to replace paintings of Washington and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in military garb with depictions of the men in civilian clothes.
Mount Vernon has loaned the university its Gilbert Stuart portrait of an older Washington not in uniform. It will return the Peale portrait to Washington and Lee at the end of the two years.
In May 1772, the Annapolis-based Peale visited Mount Vernon and was asked by Washington’s wife, Martha, to paint her husband’s portrait.
Washington sat for Peale over three days and paid the artist about 18 pounds — approximately $2,700 in today’s money, according to a University of Wyoming currency calculator.
Peale painted Washington in the garb of a colonel of the Virginia Regiment, which Washington had commanded from 1755 to 1758 during the French and Indian War, according to Mount Vernon.
The oil painting is 60 inches tall and 50 inches wide.
In it, Washington wears a blue coat, with red facings and silver trim, evidence that he was a provincial soldier, not an officer in the British army he was serving. He wears a black hat with a white neck stock and a tan glove on his right hand.
A paper sticking out of his waistcoat pocket reads “Orders of March.” The hilt of an elegant sword appears at his left side.
“It was considered very stylish, very cool, to be shown as a participant in this worldwide conflict,” Schoelwer said.
But Washington had been out of the service for over a decade.
“It has traditionally been suggested that he went up to the attic, got in his trunk, got out his old 1750s uniform and put it on,” she said. He may have, although parts of the uniform have a newer style.
In 1772, Washington was famous for his military exploits, but had failed to get a commission in the regular British army and had returned to run his large plantation on the Potomac River, where he held more than 120 slaves.
He was involved in local politics, but his role in the Revolutionary War, the making of the U.S. Constitution and the early U.S. government was years in the future.
“What if he’d gotten that commission?” Schoelwer said. “What if he’d risen in the ranks? What if he’d been fighting in India or the Caribbean in 1775 and ‘76? It’s a fascinating ‘what if’ historical question.”
The portrait is believed to have hung in the front parlor at Mount Vernon for 30 years beside a painting of Martha done in 1757. “This is a private portrait,” Schoelwer said. “This is for the family.”
“There is a real presence conveyed in the portrait,” she said. Washington’s blue eyes gaze off into the distance with the look of man not to be toyed with.
“He looks commanding, as you would expect an officer,” she said. “He looks trustworthy. …. He looks like someone you would look up to. He doesn’t look like, you know, a regular guy.”
After George and Martha died — he in 1799, she in 1802 — the painting was taken from Mount Vernon by her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, whom the Washingtons had raised.
After Custis built Arlington House, now surrounded by the national cemetery, the painting was displayed there for years, Patricia A. Hobbs, curator of art and history at Washington and Lee, said in an email.
Meanwhile, Custis’s daughter, Mary Anna, had married a young soldier named Robert E. Lee. When he threw in his lot with the Confederacy in 1861, the family left Arlington.
“The family paintings were packed and sent to Ravensworth,” the Fairfax County home of relatives, Hobbs wrote.
After the Civil War, Lee served as president of what was then Washington College, and upon his death in 1870 the school changed its name to Washington and Lee University.
The paintings, including Peale’s, came to Lexington, Va., where the university is located, “in the early 1870s [and] hung in the university president’s house,” Hobbs wrote.
The Peale painting was given to the university in 1897 by George Washington Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s eldest son, and himself a former Confederate general, who had just retired as the university’s president.
Now it has come full circle.
“To be able to have the original back at Mount Vernon, where it was … painted and originally hung is just so exciting,” Schoelwer said.