Finding George Washington

George Washington (1732-1799) is famously inscrutable. And yet I found him, hanging on the wall at the Powel House (b. 1765) in Philadelphia. Rather, I found his shadow in the form of a silhouette, pencil lines and all. On the reserve, the silhouette reads, “General Washington, a bad likeness.”

George Washington's Silhouette by Samuel Powel, 1787, In Situ at the Powel House in Philadelphia, PA
George Washington’s Silhouette by Samuel Powel, 1787, In Situ at the Powel House in Philadelphia, PA

This “bad” likeness breathes life into the Powel House’s withdrawing room but also into Washington. Samuel Powel (1738-1793), Philadelphia mayor from 1775-1776 and 1789-1790, made the portrait himself, in 1787. Known as a hollow-cut silhouette, Powel crafted it by tracing Washington’s shadow on a light-colored substrate, cutting away the outline, and backing it with blue paper after socializing over tea with Washington’s brother John (1736-1787) and none other than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).

Fun among friends. What’s more personal than that?

My original purpose for visiting the Powel House was to check out an example of a Philadelphia “ballroom” that probably inspired party rooms like the one at my beloved George Read House in New Castle, Delaware. It was great to see this comparable space in person and to get a sense of what Read was likely trying to replicate or imitate in his New Castle Home.

To my delight, I found much more than some nice rooms at the Powel house. I also found George Washington.

Further Reading and Looking

Visit the Powel House, a Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks property. You can see the original Powel House interiors at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Preservationists and antiquarians “saved” them when the Powel House faced demolition in the early twentieth century.

For a technical analysis of historic silhouettes, see Penley Knipe, “Paper Profiles: American Portrait Silhouettes,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation Online, Vol. 41, No. 3, Article 1: 203-223.

For a history of silhouettes made and used among Philadelphia Quakers in the early republic, see Anne Verplank, “The Silhouette and Quaker Identity in Early National Philadelphia,” Winterthur Portfolio 43, 1 (Spring 2009): 41-78.

For a list of portraits of Washington made from life, see “Life Portraits of George Washington,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/artwork/life-portraits-of-george-washington/.

Mount Vernon recently acquired a silhouette of Washington made in 1791. Read more about that likeness, for which Washington probably did no sit, here.

Check out historian Joseph M. Adelman’s thoughtful essay, “George Washington, Man of Mystery,” for a reflection on Washington’s mythic stature in American life.

Learn about what it takes to choose and be the “official” George Washington in this fascinating documentary, Being George.

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