1798 Print of George Washington and Family by E. Savage Known as the First American Presidential Family Portrait
March 10, 1798-Dated Federal Period, Stipple Engraving titled, “The Washington Family”, engraved by E. Savage (1761-1817), not colored, Framed, Fine.
This historic Stipple Engraved Print measures 26” x 20.75” (by sight), and is framed under Plexiglas to an overall size of 28.75” x 23.5”. Entitled “The Washington Family”, image shows General Washington in his military uniform and Martha Washington seated at a table with Martha’s two grandchildren standing with them. A black servant stands in the background. Text below image at left reads; “Painted & Engraved by E: Savage / The Washington Family / George Washington his Lady, and her two Grandchildren by the name of Custis. / Published March 10, 1798. by E. Savage & Robt. Wilkinson No. 58 Cornhill London.” Text at right reads the same in French. Even in tone, soiling, tear and chipped at upper right corner that measures about 2”, some damp staining along lower margin edge, and the frame has minor chips and dings. We located another similar example in a noted dealer’s stock, close in condition, with modern hand-coloring and the lower text trimmed off priced at $5,500. That dealer’s copy stated to be “One of the great images of George Washington and family published a year before his death and the first Presidential family portrait. On the table is the L'Enfant – Ellicott map of new Capital City of Washington.” A historic original of this framed “The Washington Family” Lithograph having an old partial Old Print Shop, Lexington Ave, NY. Label and a Sotheby’s auction house sticker on its reverse side. Stated by the consignor to have been last offered and sold by Sotheby’s, New York at auction in January 1996.
On March 3, 1798, an advertisement appeared in The Philadelphia Gazette announcing the sale of a new engraving of George Washington and his family: “The print, representing General Washington and his Family, all whole lengths in one groupe, will be ready for delivery by the 15th of March. An unfinished impression is to be seen at Mr. McElwee’s Looking Glass store No. 70, South Fourth Street. The subscription will close on the 10th of March inst.
The engraving represents the culmination of a project undertaken over the course of several years by the artist Edward Savage. In 1789, Savage was commissioned by the president of Harvard College to paint a portrait of George Washington; he completed a portrait of Martha Washington at the request of John Adams the following year.
Savage apparently created portraits of Martha Washington’s grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis at the same time. Over the next seven years, Savage recreated these likenesses in different guises and formats. The group portrait in oil, completed in 1796, National Gallery of Art, Washington, represents the artist’s most ambitious attempt to memorialize the founding father. It is unlikely that the four figures depicted ever posed together in this actual setting; instead, the artist combined his individual portraits to create a harmonious composition in the style of English grand manner portraiture.
In both the oil and the 1798 engraving, the four figures are grouped around a draped table over which is spread plans for the new federal city of Washington, DC. The president is seated, dressed elegantly in uniform, but posed informally with his arm resting on the shoulder of his adopted grandson. Washington’s three-corner hat is set aside on the table and his sword is placed in front of him. The boy stands to his right, dressed in a fine suit with a wide starched collar. His hand rests on a globe, representing American hopes for rising global significance.
Mrs. Washington sits across from her husband, dressed in fine lace and satin with a matronly mobcap adorning her head. With a folded fan, she gestures to a point on the map. Her granddaughter Nellie stands beside her, lifting a corner of the map for the others to see. She is dressed in a simple pale gown with a dark wide sash, and her long hair is arranged in ringlets and unadorned. Both gaze across at the general, whose faraway look suggests he is contemplating weighty matters.
The figures are arranged in front of an open space that commands a view of distant hills and white-masted boats floating on a river, perhaps meant to represent the view from their family estate at Mount Vernon. Elegant columns and billowing drapery, artistic conventions added to ennoble the scene, frame the view behind them.
A black house-servant stands, formal and erect, in front of the column on the right. There is some dispute about the identity of this figure. In the oil version, underpainting suggests that Savage may have used a black servant in London as the model, but then painted over him after returning to the United States. The figure’s larger stature in the later version of the painting and then the print suggest that Savage might have meant to represent William (Billy) Lee, a slave who had served Washington during the war.
A caption added to the print identifies Savage himself as the printmaker, with the assistance of Robert Wilkinson of London as co-publisher. The caption further identifies the sitters, in both English and French, and the date of publication.
Savage evidently considered the engraving a success and felt confident in his ability to reap financial benefits from its production. On June 3, 1798, he wrote to George Washington from Philadelphia:
“Agreeable to Col. Biddle’s order I delivered four of the best impressions of your Family Print. They are choose [sic] out of the first that was printed. … The likenesses of the young people are not much like what they are at present. The Copper-plate was begun and half finished from the likenesses which I painted in New York in the year 1789. I could not make the alterations in the copper to make it like the painting which I finished in Philadelphia in the year 1796. The portraits of yourself and Mrs. Washington are generally thought to be likenesses. As soon as I got one of the prints ready to be seen I advertised in two of the papers that a subscription would be open for about twenty days. Within that time, there was 331 subscribers to the print and about 100 had subscribed previously, all of them the most respectable people in the city. There is every probability at present of its producing me at least $10,000 in one twelve month. As soon as I have one printed in colours I shall take the liberty to send it to Mrs. Washington for her acceptance. I think she will like it better than a plain print. Mrs. Savage joins me in respectful compliments to Mrs. Washington.”
In addition to the success that he derived from the wide dissemination of the print, Savage elevated his artistic reputation over the years by exhibiting the painting in his museums and galleries. In uniting Washington’s civic, military, and familial roles, The Washington Family transcends simple portraiture to achieve the status of history painting.