This familiar portrait of George Washington hangs in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol. Its location seems to make perfect sense: the capital city bears Washington’s name, he laid the building’s cornerstone, and his likeness is repeated hundreds of times around the city. Nonetheless, the Capitol was never intended to be this painting’s home.
Richard W. Meade was the painting’s first owner. A native of Philadelphia, Meade arrived in Spain in 1803— along with his family and some comforts of home, including art from his growing collection—and set himself up to continue in his profession as a merchant. He soon became the Spanish-based purchasing agent for the U.S. Navy, and he took up his post at the Port of Cadiz in 1806.
Meade’s decade of prosperity ended on May 2, 1816. A complicated series of business bankruptcies and the general confusion in Spain’s government during the Napoleonic Wars brought hard times to Meade. He was arrested on charges that he owed the Spanish government $52,000. During two years’ imprisonment, George Erving, the representative of the Department of State in Spain, advocated tirelessly for Meade’s freedom. Following his 1818 release, Meade showed his gratitude by presenting Erving with this portrait of George Washington. In a letter to Erving he wrote, “I brought with me to this city (Madrid) a portrait of General Washington. It is my wish to present the same to the legation of my country.” The portrait was part of Meade’s extensive collection of American and European art. The painting remained in the U.S. Embassy in Spain for more than a century.
In 1950, another American made the journey from the United States to Spain on government business. Representative James G. Fulton of Pennsylvania came to Madrid to lecture on U.S. foreign policy and rediscovered the painting in the U.S. Embassy. Although some thought it to be a work by Gilbert Stuart, which would have made the painting quite valuable, the Prado Museum in Spain appraised the painting to be worth only $100. An art collector as well as a politician, Fulton saw the value of the work and offered the Embassy $5,000 to take it off their hands. However, the painting was not for sale. It was given to the Embassy and therefore the property of the United States.
Fulton immediately requested to have the painting brought back to the United States to hang in the Capitol. With the help of President Harry Truman and the Department of State, Meade’s 1818 gift to the U.S. Embassy left Spain and returned to Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1951. The portrait was displayed in a place of honor in Statuary Hall, where John Vanderlyn’s similar Washington portrait hung in the early 19th century. In 1962, the painting made its final—and much shorter—move to its current home in the wood-paneled Rayburn Room, in a space designed especially for its display.
The painting’s location is not the only thing that has shifted during its lifetime. Its attribution is still debated today. It is not signed by any hand. Meade didn’t name names, either. In the aforementioned letter presenting the painting to the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Meade fails to specify an artist, leaving it open to speculation. Historically, the painting was labelled as a work by Gilbert Stuart. A large number of copies of Stuart’s works were made, particularly those of George Washington, whose image was in great demand. Evidence of mixed technique within the painting also makes authorship by a single artist, much less Stuart, seem unlikely. Art historians and conservators have added William Winstanley, a well-known landscape artist of the 18th century, to the list of possible artists.
Although the painting’s creator remains uncertain, its place in House history is assured.
Sources: House Report 322, 16th Cong., 2nd sess., February 14, 1821; Report for H.R. 185, 15th Cong., 1st sess., April 4, 1818.Follow @USHouseHistory