Unknown - portrait of General Washington

This miniature portrait of General Washington was purchased at auction in 2008 as an impulse buy, but has been lying on one side as nothing could be found out about it and it did not really fit within the scope of this collection. The portrait is 55mm in diameter and the ebonised frame is 115mm x 110mm. It may have been originally gilded or polished.

It was a puzzle as it refers to General Washington, whereas nearly all portraits refer to him as President Washington. It does not even seem to appear in standard references to portraits of George Washington, such as Eisen. As can be seen from the reverse, it is a likely a pressing with several copies being made.

However, a kind visitor has now provided some information about the portrait, as a few similar examples are known. He advises of an apparently identical one in his collection;
(Circa 1785) General Washington Uniface Medallion. England. Repousse". Diameter 56mmmm. Rare unlisted Washington uniface medal in period frame. John J. Ford had 3 of these in his collection, Ford II, Lots 243-245. Ford believed these were used with mirrored backs and circa 1786-1790. Ford's deduction was not difficult; clearly these pieces with the "General Washington" legend, and no reference to his presidency were pre 1789 when Washington was inaugurated president. Lot 245 had the plain rim as this does, but all 3 Ford pieces were holed. I am only aware of those 3 examples, and one where the design was incorporated into the lid of a box. 2 of Ford's examples originated in England, as did this example, making it highly likely it was of English manufacture. This is the only unholed example with plain rims.

Another one with silver overlay, was sold by Heritage Auctions in November 2010 for nearly $1800, being described as;
George Washington: A Superb Early Portrait Plaque. This highly detailed, high-relief silver shell medallion is surrounded by raised brass rim, and set into a lacquered hardwood frame. This is the same sort of medallion image seen under glass on snuff boxes of the very early 1790-1815 era. Original brass suspension loop at the top is attached by a brass clasp in the form of a collage of implements of war. A beautifully made early GW display item. Medallion 51mm, overall dimensions 4.375" x 4.125".

To my eye, the one with a silver surface looks as if it has recently been re-silvered and thus is not in original condition. The frame and hanger may also be replacements.

From these various comments, it seems the portrait is of British origin. About a year ago, I saw for sale on eBay a very similar portrait in an identical frame, but of Napoleon. Thus the two portraits would seem to have been made at the same time. It appears they were sold in frames like this, but also used for snuff box lids. 1349

Much later (2014) - A kind visitor with a similar portrait, but on a brass snuff-box has sent me some research they have undertaken, together with these three excellent images:

I ran across your 2008 article pertaining to an unusual portrait of "General" Washington done in brass repousse'.
It looked a lot like a piece I have had for many years and kept trinkets in. The images attached are of this round box which dimensions are as follows:
*the diameter of the lid not including the small beading around the edge is roughly 56mm
*and roughly the diameter of the box as well
*the height of the box is roughly 26mm
In doing a little research after reading your blog, I believe I have come up with a theory.
I think the original design was that of Italian artist Jean-Baptiste Nini (1717-1786). Nini was contracted in 1772 by Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont (1726-1803) to create portraits of European Royalty and other well known persons, all done in a medallion form in different sizes. La Ray de Chaumont is considered the French Father of the American Revolution and was good friends with Ben Franklin, during Franklin's sojourns to France during and after the American Revolution. Franklin was introduced to Nini when de Chaumont commissioned Nini to do a portrait of Franklin. He did several in different sizes one of which Franklin told his daughter was being used for lids of snuff boxes. Nini and Franklin became good friends and it would not be a stretch to see having Franklin commission Nini to do one of Washington, ie: "General Washington" (he was not President yet). I do not know how these few small portrait medallions got made into snuff boxes . Some say they were made in England but why would the English idealize someone on a snuff box lid, having just lost a war to him? The French, however, would have very much idealized Washington enough to start a revolution themselves.
Check out Wkipedia's sites on La Ray de Chaumont and look up Nini's work and compare styles and lettering to the "General Washington" images.
Well .. That's my theory ... What do you think?

That sounds a very reasonable explanation for the portrait to me, although there is one further complication!  Since I made the original post I have also seen one of William Pitt, so a similar puzzle arises about a French origin for that, unless it was made before the Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain.  My best guess would be that they were all made in England for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think at this time French snuff boxes were normally hand made and tended to be of much higher quality. Secondly, Britain was at the forefront of  the Industrial Revolution and in the use of steam presses to stamp out coins etc. Hence I lean towards these being cheap items made in England on steam presses, and recognizing that many commercial manufacturers chase markets before considering patriotism (and many still do!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just found one of these while working on my house. I removed an old piece of rough siding and this fell from between an old post the siding I heard a different ping when it landed at my feet. During other renovations over the years we had found some old Indian head coins dating back to the 1800s' but nothing this old. A local plasterer while bidding on a job had told me that the original structure was a Revolutionary era home. We were told that it had been in 1900 but town records only list age as 1900.