Friday, April 17, 2015

Painting George

or how a persistent portrait painter pursued the president (and later became a resident of New Bern)

By John B. Green III

Portrait of George Washington, 1794, by William J. Williams.  Frontispiece, William J. Williams, Portrait Painter and his Descendants, 1933.

In the year 1792 the American portraitist William Joseph Williams hit upon the idea of drawing a pastel portrait of George Washington.  He doubtless sought to further his career, like so many before him, by securing the patronage of the first president (as well as profiting from the sale of copies of the portrait!)  Obtaining a letter of introduction from Henry Lee, governor of Virginia, Williams presented himself to General Washington in Philadelphia on July 2, 1792.  The meeting did not go well.  Writing to Lee the next day, Washington vented his displeasure at the imposition.

Your letter of the 20th ultimo, was presented to me yesterday by Mr. Williams, who as a professional man may or may not be for aught I know, a luminary of the first magnitude.  But to be frank, and I hope you will not be displeased with me for being so, I am heartily tired of the attendance, which, from one cause or another has been given to these people, and it is now more than two years since I have resolved to sit no more for any of them, and have adhered to it, except in instances where it has been requested by public bodies, or for a particular purpose (not of the painters), and could not without offense be refused.

Seizing upon Williams' presumed pecuniary motives, Washington continued,

I have been led to make this resolution for another reason, besides the irksomeness of sitting, and the time I lose by it, which is, that these productions have in my estimation been made use of as a sort of tax on individuals, by being engraved, and that badly, and hawked about and advertised for sale.

William Williams was undeterred.  Approaching the Alexandria, Virginia masonic lodge (where Washington was a member and had been master of the lodge at its chartering) he offered to paint a portrait of the president for the lodge if they would approach Washington for his permission.
They did, with the assistance of Henry Lee, and Washington relented.  The painting was completed and presented to the lodge October 25, 1794 where it remains to this day.  In the image Washington is shown wearing his masonic regalia as Past Master of the lodge.

Williams continued to paint in the Philadelphia area until 1801 when he relocated to Charleston, South Carolina.   In 1804 he moved his family to New Bern where he remained until returning to New York in 1807.  He was back in New Bern by 1817 and lived here until his death on November 30, 1823 at the age of 65.  He was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

Detail of a photograph from 1861 showing house and store occupied by William Williams, northeast corner of Broad and Middle streets. New Bern Historical Society

The same building as above, much altered, photo ca. 1933. William J. Williams, Portrait Painter and his Descendants, 1933.