Rembrandt Peale's Washington before Yorktown--one of the few life-size portraits of George Washington on horseback and only the second such depiction by an American artist—is a heroic portrayal of the father of the United States. The three-week siege of Yorktown occurred in early autumn 1781, near the end of the Revolutionary War. At that time Washington controlled 14,000 troops from the Continental Army and the French Expeditionary Force, under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau, as well as 24 warships under the Comte de Grasse.
Astride his restless white horse, Washington turns toward the Marquis de Lafayette and three other mounted officers: Henry Knox, Benjamin Lincoln, and Rochambeau. Alexander Hamilton gallops off to the right to execute the general's orders. Washington is presented as a man of action and decisiveness, commanding the completion of essential defensive trenches. His mature facial features show him not at age 49, as he would have been at Yorktown, but as he appeared near the end of his life. The background further distinguishes Washington from his companions: they are shown against a leafy green landscape, but he is set against the radiant sky, which complements the lofty portrayal of his features.
The large mullein plant in the foreground plays an important role in the painting. Also known as Aaron's rod, this medicinal herb was used to treat various physical ailments and, according to folklore, to cast out evil spirits. Peale included it as a symbol of Washington's character in his ambitious portrayal of the military leader preparing to vanquish George III's English forces.
Peale created this commanding painting in the hope that the United States Congress would purchase it to hang in the Capitol Rotunda. His ambition was never realized, and the work remained in the possession of his heirs until they donated it to George Washington's Mount Vernon in 1873. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association lent the painting to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1902 and donated it to that museum in 1944. It entered the Gallery's collection, along with many other works from the Corcoran, in 2014.