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An Unknown Soldier

By Frederic Hunter / February 22, 1989



A FRIEND and I talked not long ago about one of the great failures of late 18th-century American portraiture. ``For some reason,'' I remarked, ``none of those painters quite captured the special quality of George Washington.'' ``He certainly had something,'' she agreed. ``He got soldiers to fight who were half naked, half freezing, and half starved, and who hadn't been paid. He even got them to reenlist.''

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Despite a thousand portraits, they never seem to disclose the depth and complexity of who Washington was.

Charles Willson Peale served with Washington during the New Jersey campaigns of 1777 and at Valley Forge and did seven portraits from life. These Peale portraits maintain a consistency of aspect, but they do not strikingly resemble the George Washington limned by John Trumbull.

Trumbull served briefly as Washington's aide-de-camp outside Boston in 1775, doing portraits from memory and history paintings in which Washington figured. He also executed a full-length portrait when Washington sat for him in 1790.

And, curiously, neither the Peales nor the Trumbulls look much like the Gilbert Stuart Washington portraits.

Washington stood 6 feet 3 and weighed more than 200 pounds. He had enormous hands. He also had ambition - for status, for reputation, for the opportunity to be useful - and kept his ambition in harmony with his times.

In addition, he had charisma.

The Chevalier de Chastellux, who visited Washington at his winter quarters in November 1780, noted that ``the strongest characteristic of this respectable man is the perfect harmony which reigns between the physical and moral qualities....''

In his ``Memoirs,'' however, another contemporary Frenchman, General Rochambeau, who devised the Yorktown campaign, depicted Washington as an indiscreet military primitive.

Washington was charming to women in the manner of his time and background, and he loved to dance. Like many another woman, Abigail Adams felt his ``presence.'' After meeting the Continental Army's commander in chief, she wrote husband John, the period's consummate politician, quoting what the Queen of Sheba said in meeting Solomon, ``I thought the half was not told me.''

By contrast Gilbert Stuart felt that ``All his features were indicative of the strongest passions. Yet, like Socrates, his judgment and self-command made him appear of a different cast in the eyes of the world.... Had he been born in the forests ... he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes.''

But the admiring Chastellux disapproved of Washington's eating habits; he thought the general ate too much and spent too much time at table. After describing a midafternoon meal consisting of ``eight or ten large dishes of meat and poultry, with vegetables of several sorts, followed by a second course of pastry,'' he noted that ``Washington usually continues eating for two hours, toasting and conversing all the time.''

Besides being a notable eater, Washington was also an excellent horseman. He galloped everywhere. Though he worked as a surveyor as a teen-ager, he inherited Mount Vernon at the age of 20 upon the death of his older half brother Lawrence, his guardian after the death of their father when George was only 11.

Washington fought - without distinction - in the French and Indian War, serving with men he later opposed. Ambitious for military rank and honor, he returned to Mount Vernon when these were denied him. He married advantageously when not quite 27. It does not seem to have been a love match (Martha was a widow with two surviving children of the four she had borne), but Washington was unquestionably happy in his marriage. Throughout the war years he longed for - and grumbled about not getting enough - news from Mount Vernon. His wife joined him each year when he moved into winter quarters.

As practically everyone knows, he had trouble with his teeth. He also had trouble with his mother. Despite his having provided for her care, she complained regularly of neglect. While he was at war, she sought to have the Virginia House of Delegates come to her financial aid.

A letter written when the mother and son failed to meet gives a flavor of her person. (The spelling and punctuation are hers.) ``My dear Georg,'' she wrote, ``I was truly unesy by Not being at hom when you went thru fredirceksburg it was a onlucky thing for me now I am afraid I Never Shall have that pleasure agin I am soe very unwell this trip over the Mountins has almost kill'd me....''