American Paintings and Sculpture
Artist: William Russell Birch, British, 1755 - 1834
George Washington (1732-1799), LL.D. 1781
1795, or shortly thereafter
Enamel on copper
5.7 x 9.5 cm (2 1/4 x 3 3/4 in.)
Gift of Mrs. Edward R. Wardwell for the Lelia A. and John Hill Morgan, B.A. 1893, LL.B. 1896, M.A.(HON.) 1929, Collection
William Russell Birch modeled his most celebrated miniatures on full-scale paintings of American heroes. He executed around sixty enamels of George Washington after popular oil portraits of the benevolent elder statesman by Gilbert Stuart and charged from thirty to one hundred dollars each. Birch’s autobiography includes a vivid account of the genesis of these lucrative portraits: “When [Washington] was sitting to Stuart, he told him he had heard there was another Artist of merit from London, naming myself, that he would sit to me if I chose. Mr. Stuart brought me the message. I thanked Mr. Stuart, and told him that as he had painted his picture, it would be a mark of the highest imposition to trouble the Gen’l to sit to me, but that when I had copied his Picture of him in Enamel, which was my forte, that I would show it to the Gen’l., and thank him for his kind offer, which, when I had done, I waited upon the Gen’l with a note that an artist waited the Honour of showing personally to the Gen’l a specimen of his talents. When I saw the Gen’l I put the picture into his hands. [He looked at it steadfastly, … till feeling myself awkward I begun the history of Enamel Painting, which by the time I got through he complimented me upon the beauty of my work.” The Yale example is the only known miniature of Washington by Birch set into a snuffbox. According to a 1937 auction catalogue, it was owned by the Marquis de Lafayette. In his autobiography, Birch lists other miniature paintings set in snuffboxes and notes that they were fashionable during his younger adult years in England. The endurance and brilliance of enamel made it the perfect medium for Birch’s iconic images of Washington. Whether the owner of this snuffbox knew Washington personally or revered him at a distance, having a small portrait of him emblazoned on an object for everyday use exemplifies how, through domestic consumption, Washington became ubiquitous in the American home and psyche. Portrait miniatures of the first president melded the public and private realms, giving ordinary citizens a way to internalize republican ideals.
Not on view
Helen A. Cooper et al., Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2008), 11921, no. 61, ill.
Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.