Published: July 30, 2002
Thomas Colville, Vance Jordan, and Hirschl & Adler Purchase Charles Willson Peale’s Creation
By Carol Sims
CHEVERNY, FRANCE — On June 9, a painting of George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the American revolutionary forces, painted in 1782 by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), sold in a small country auction in the Loire valley of France for 5,300,000 euros ($5 million), a record for an American painting sold in Europe.
The buyer was Thomas Colville, a private dealer in American art in New Haven, Conn., and New York City. Colville purchased this work with two other dealers, Vance Jordan and Hirschl & Adler, also of New York City where the picture will be offered for sale. As of press time, the dealers are scheduled to meet to discuss the marketing of the picture and how it will be priced.
The painting is thought to be the only version of the first officially commissioned portrait of Washington as titular head of the new American nation still in private hands. It was commissioned by the Revolutionary government in Philadelphia to help establish an identity for the emerging nation in the eyes of the world, particularly the nation’s important allies, the French. Another version of the painting was sent to Louis XVI. Still another version was intercepted by the British.
The portrait was executed after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 in which Washington’s army along with the French forces under the command of Jean B. Donatien de Vimeur, the Maréchal de Rochambeau (1725-1807), defeated the British in the decisive battle of the war.
This work, in which the Battle of Yorktown is seen in the distance, was taken back to France in 1783 by the Maréchal to his chateau Thoré la Rochette in the province of Vendôme where it has hung until its recent sale. The painting is in its original Louis XVI frame. The consignor, the 92-year-old Marquis de Rochambeau, is a direct descendent of the French General for whom the portrait was commissioned.
The painting was reproduced in color on a full page in Charles Coleman Sellers’s Charles Willson Peale (Scribner’s, New York, 1969, plate IV, between pages 178-179).
Colville was aware of the sale through the advertising and publicity in the European press. It was on view for a month in Paris before the sale, although Colville, the designated bidder of the three dealers, first laid eyes on it a day before the auction. He was immediately impressed with its freshness and liveliness.
“When I saw the picture I was struck with its vitality. It is not a stuffy portrait. It shows a youthful Washington who was commander of the army. There is a swagger in his stance and expression,” said Colville, who also noted that the battle of Yorktown was likely added to the background by Charles’s brother James Peale.
Charles Willson Peale, the most prominent portrait painter in America at the time of the Revolution, was both a friend of Washington — having painted his portrait as early as 1772 — and served under him as a captain, seeing action in the Battle of Princeton. This knowledge of Washington the man, enabled Peale to capture the general’s exuberant personality on canvas in a manner that is unique.
Vance Jordan of Vance Jordan Fine Art Inc, who specializes in Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century paintings, saw the acquisition of the Peale as a sound investment. “The strong pictures are in strong hands and their value will survive very nicely in times like this.”
Jordan was impressed with how this painting compares to other Washington portraits. “Photos do not indicate the strength of character in the picture. It has a great spark. The fact that this was done post-Yorktown does present a difference in Washington — other pictures are more rote by comparison. This is the one that I would most like to own.”
Stuart Feld of Hirschl & Adler Galleries said, “As of October 1, I will have been in this business for 35 years and this painting is one of the half-dozen most extraordinary paintings I have ever seen.”
Feld inspected the painting before deciding to partner with Jordan and Colville to acquire it. “I would never buy anything I hadn’t seen first-hand, and that is my area of expertise.”
When asked about the decision to partner, Feld relayed that the three had partnered on other acquisitions and they knew the Peale was going to take “a lot of ammunition.” Feld stated that it went about as high as they expected it to go.
According to Feld, the painting has only been out of France once since it was painted by Peale and sent to France for Rochambeau. That solitary excursion was for an exhibition loan to the National Portrait Gallery in 1976 for a Bicentennial exhibition.
Feld expected the painting to go on view after Labor Day, when conservation is complete. He stated that there has already been museum and private interest in the piece. “It is an iconic picture — the most important Washington portrait left in private hands.”
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