Office of Cultural Heritage Conservator Lauren Hall (left) and Consultant Emily MacDonald-Korth (right) use technology to look beneath the outer layers of paint to reveal secrets beneath. Photo by Katherine Ferguson
By Glyn T. Davies
More than 16,000 works of art, historic objects, and antiquities comprise the heritage collections housed in U.S. diplomatic and consular buildings worldwide. Whether acquired as gifts, bequests, or conveyed with property, the far-flung items span centuries. They play an important cultural diplomacy role in their host countries and help to tell the nearly 250-year-long story of American diplomacy.
Of those many collection items, perhaps none is more compelling––and more imbued with history––than “Washington at Princeton,” a full-length portrait of America’s foremost Founding Father on display in the American ambassador’s residence in Paris. Painted as a copy of his own famous original at the height of the Revolutionary War by renowned portraitist and patriot Charles Willson Peale, it was sent in 1780 as a gift to the Dutch under the care of Henry Laurens, American envoy to the Dutch Republic, who was charged with securing a Dutch loan for the American rebellion. The painting, and Laurens, never made it to Amsterdam.
What happened to “Washington at Princeton” over the subsequent centuries is as improbable as it is poetic. Created as a diplomatic gift to help the United States secure support to win its independence, it was captured on the high seas and languished in captivity, where it inspired a copy unveiled by a president for a prime minister. More than 160 years later, the portrait was auctioned back across the ocean to America, purchased by a New York financier, brought back to Europe by his sister, and bequeathed to hang in an ambassador’s residence, where it finally returned to its intended diplomatic vocation of winning friends for the United States.
The painting’s many twists and turns, transatlantic crossings, repairs and artisanal restorations made “Washington at Princeton,” known to art historians as the Laurens-Albemarle portrait, incredibly compelling. A recent New York Times article tells the story of how the experts engaged by the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations’ Office of Cultural Heritage proved the painting’s provenance.
The painting itself had a dramatic story, as did American Founding Father, and diplomatic envoy, Henry Laurens. His packet boat, Mercury, was intercepted at sea off the coast of Newfoundland by Captain George Keppel of H.M.S. Vestal. Although Laurens’ papers were hastily tossed overboard, they were fished out of the water by British sailors, who discovered the draft of a U.S.-Dutch treaty negotiated in France by U.S. and Dutch representatives in 1778.
Laurens was charged with treason and taken to the Tower of London—the only American ever imprisoned there (though he was later released)—and “Washington at Princeton,” now a prize of war, became Keppel’s property. His family, the Lords Albemarle of East Sussex, kept it at their family seat for the next 165 years.
Fast forward to January 1919, when a latter-day Lord and Lady Albemarle decided to present a contemporary copy of their “Washington at Princeton” to Prime Minister Lloyd George in the presence of President Woodrow Wilson. The Paris Peace Conference had begun nine days earlier, and Wilson was at 10 Downing Street to confer with his U.K. counterpart. Albemarle told Wilson he thought it appropriate to commemorate America’s entry into the war by presenting the prime minister with Washington’s portrait so that it might be displayed in the house where, 142 years prior, the treaty granting American independence would have been considered by the British cabinet.
The Laurens-Albemarle version of “Washington at Princeton” remained in England until 1946, when it was sold across the Atlantic, ending up in the possession of Caroline Ryan Foulke, an heiress, art collector and Francophile. Foulke generously willed the painting in 1989 to the Department of State, asking that it be displayed in the American ambassador’s residence in Paris.
Thus, this enigmatic portrait, originally meant as a diplomatic gift for the Dutch, finally fulfilled its diplomatic destiny two centuries after beginning its mission by welcoming visitors to the home of U.S. ambassadors to France. George Washington, who never crossed the Atlantic Ocean during his lifetime, is now at home in both image and spirit in the nation that, more than any other, helped the U.S. win its independence.
Almost as dramatic as its Revolutionary backstory has been the tale of the portrait’s rediscovery by the art world. In private hands and unavailable to scholars for most of its existence, only now has this artwork and the records pertaining to it been definitively examined by experts.
Their painstaking work, using modern technology and forensic research techniques, has established definitively that the portrait was indeed painted by Charles Willson Peale more than 240 years ago. A short film by the Office of Cultural Heritage (CH) compiles the research conducted on two continents and expert consultations in Philadelphia, Washington, and Paris.
After such a dramatic history, is it understandable that “Washington at Princeton” has suffered some battle scars, although some seemed suspicious. Mysterious small holes in the canvas underneath Washington’s overpainted face ––likely a facelift from a heavy-handed restoration––led some on the conservation team to joke, with a hint of real consideration, that some long-ago English detractors might have flung darts at his head. The intense study of the portrait also revealed extensive poorly implemented “repairs” over its 240 years.
Considerable conservation work will be required to ensure the portrait’s continued service as an ambassador for early American art, and as a reminder of America’s enduring bond with France. CH is committed to carrying forward that work in collaboration with the Fund to Conserve U.S. Diplomatic Treasures Abroad and generous private citizens who, like Caroline Foulke, understand the importance of conserving the United States’ national and diplomatic heritage.
Now firmly established as one of America’s oldest diplomatic artifacts by a renowned Revolutionary-era patriot and portraitist, “Washington at Princeton” offers many lessons.
American diplomacy has made significant progress in presenting the nation’s cultural achievements to the world. Often in league with public-spirited private citizens, U.S. diplomats have worked systematically since World War II to present American music and movies, sports and stories, and art and architecture to the world. Those who make a career in public and cultural diplomacy now, deservedly, have co-equal status with other diplomatic disciplines.
The return of the Laurens-Albemarle “Washington at Princeton” to its proper place in the annals of early American art on the eve of the United States’ 250th birthday is in some ways poetic. It is a fitting reminder that America’s tradition of cultural diplomacy is even older than the United States itself.
Glyn T. Davies is the senior program advisor to the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations’ Office of Cultural Heritage.