Philadelphia: Edward Savage, 1798. Edward Savage (American, 1761-1817). First edition, first printing.
Stipple and line engraving on paper, 21 x 26 inches (cropped to platemark), engraved by Savage after his original 1796 painting and published in Philadelphia, March 10, 1798; mounted under an eglomise matt within a gilt, compo frame.
A rare example of the 1798 Edward Savage view of George Washington and his family at Mount Vernon - one of the few engraved images of Washington to be issued during his lifetime. The work illustrates Washington in all of his roles--military leader, family man, and visionary politician. It is considered one the most important printed images of George Washington ever issued. The image consists of five figures, George and Martha Washington and her two grandchildren, George Washington (Washy) Parke Custis and Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, and Washington’s valet. Washington appears in his military uniform as Commander in Chief of the United States Army, a recent appointment that brought him out of retirement and once again in the service of his country with the advent of the Quasi-War with France. His left hand rests on Andrew Ellicott's 1792 map of Washington DC, the new federal city then under construction. His right hand is on the shoulder of his adopted son, 'Washy,' whose hand in turn rests on the globe, perhaps meant to suggest that the then fledgling United States might rise to global prominence in future. Across the table Martha Washington looks towards George and points to the map with a closed fan in her right hand while she holds it open with her left. Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, Washington's adopted daughter and favorite, stands behind Martha and helps hold down the map. In the rear, at far right, is Washington's African-American valet or manservant. There is some debate regarding exactly who this is, but general consensus is that he represents Billy Lee, who served Washington during the American Revolutionary War. The background offers a view of the Potomac River from the George Washington estate of Mount Vernon.
Edward Savage's work with the Washington family began in 1789, when the president of Harvard College commissioned him to paint a portrait of George Washington. Savage completed a similar portrait of Martha Washington at the request of John Adams. At the same time, Savage completed studies of the Custis grandchildren. Savage spent about 6 years compiling the existing images into a large painting, which he completed in 1796. At the same time, he was working with Wilkinson to complete the engraving and printed image.
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 group, 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.
A few months later, on June 3rd, the engraving was completed and Savage wrote in a letter to Washington: 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 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…. 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.Item #33