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.
lower left: Remt. Peale
Estate of the artist; bequeathed 1873 to Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, Mount Vernon, Virginia; gift 1944 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Peale Museum, Baltimore, 16 May - 30 June 1825.
- Peale's New York Museum, c. November 1825, no. 210.
- Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States, Washington, January 1825.
- New England Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts, Boston, 23-28 May 1827.
- Peale Painting Room, Philadelphia, c. 30 October 1837, no. 1.
- United States Capitol, Washington, April 1858- March 1873.
- Long term loan from Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1902-1944.
- Long term loan, George Washington National Masonic Temple, Alexandria, Virginia, 1949-1963.
- Past and Present:: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, unpublished checklist.
- Corcoran [The American Genius], Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, no checklist.
- The Peale Family: Creation of an American Legacy, 1770-1870, Philadelphia Museum of Art; M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1996-1997, unnumbered checklist (shown only in Washington).
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Bellion, Wendy. Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2011: xii, 298, repro.
- Staiti, Paul. "Rembrandt Peale, Washington before Yorktown." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 74-75, 257-258, repro.
- "The Corcoran Gallery of Art - A New Beginning." American Art Review 16, no. 2 (March-April 2014): 140-141, repro.