Oklahoma City's presidential piece of colonial history
Ever wondered why President’s Day always happens when it does? It’s because it’s meant to fall around the birthday of our country’s first President, George Washington. Oklahoma City may be known for many things, but because we’re the 46th state, an abundance of colonial history isn’t one of them. Yet despite this, in the heart of the downtown area, on the third floor of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, visitors can find themselves face-to-face with Washington from a time before his Presidency.
It doesn’t look much like the iconic “Lansdowne Portrait” by Gilbert Stewart that most people associate him with, does it? In fact, it’s the Stewart one that doesn’t look like this, as it would’ve predated the Stewart painting (which, fun fact, also visited the museum in 2003!) by more than a decade. The painter of this portrait, Charles Willson Peale, was in fact the first painter to ever paint Washington. He also painted Washington from life more than any other painter. This painting, in particular, is a one of approximately 18 copies—I like to think of them as just more portable versions—of one of Peale’s most celebrated paintings of Washington he’d paint in 1783.
This painting was made in commemoration of his victory at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton—two early Revolutionary War battles which happened around the same time as his famous crossing of the Delaware River. Washington was in his late 40’s and an extremely successful general. The Battle of Yorktown—the battle where the British surrendered—would happen 4-5 years later.
So how did this valuable piece of American history land in Oklahoma City? According to Jessica Provencher, curatorial assistant at the OKCMOA, “The painting was formerly in the collection of Professor Richard MacGillivray Dawkins (1871-1955), a British archaeologist and professor of antiquities at the University of Oxford. It was purchased in November of 1955 at a Sotheby’s auction in London by Charles D. Childs of Childs Gallery in Boston. At some point early in 1956, the work was introduced to the Oklahoma Art League and they began a fundraising campaign to raise the $8,500.00 necessary to purchase the work. In order to boost the fundraising, the painting was displayed in the Skirvin Tower lobby from October 10-24, 1956. The painting was then transferred to the Oklahoma Art Center at the Municipal Auditorium for display. By mid- February 1957, the Art League raised the necessary funds to purchase the work from Childs Gallery. The painting was then placed on ‘permanent’ loan to the Oklahoma Art Center, where it remained off and on, until it was donated to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in 2005.”
This unique piece of American history is, without a doubt, one of the most magnetic pieces in the entire museum. The non-idealized way Washington is portrayed that makes him almost unrecognizable (as it says on the plaque by this painting, “[Benjamin] Franklin’s values of honesty and equality are expressed through the artist’s unflattering image of him.”) and the historical weight of this painting can’t help but draw your eye to it when you see it on the museum’s lit walls, nonchalantly tucked between a painting of an old woman by George Wesley Bellows and a Native American man by Robert Henri. If you’re visiting the Oklahoma City Museum of Art anytime soon (perhaps to see the Ansel Adams exhibition?) I can’t recommend strongly enough to give this painting a look.