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Historical Documents
The Washington Family

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G.Washington with his family and slave standing in background

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When American painter Edward Savage sketched a prototype for a print of George Washington and his family in 1789, it included Martha Custis Washington, the wealthy widow whom Washington had married 30 years earlier, and her two Custis grandchildren. In the life-size painting that Savage completed in 1796, a black servant stands in the shadows behind Martha.

In the years between the original sketch and the painting itself, Savage spent some time in England, where he was undoubtedly influenced by the contemporary European practice of depicting the aristocracy with a servant, often exotically dressed, standing in attendance. The model for the servant may well have been John Riley, a free black man employed by the American ambassador in London. Other sources have identified him as William Lee, a favored slave who served Washington for more than 30 years, though no other known likeness of Lee exists.

Washington owned numerous slaves at his several properties. In a 1786 survey of his property, George Washington listed the skills of his 41 Home House bondpeople, and counted four carpenters, four spinners, three drivers, three stablers, two blacksmiths, two seamstresses, a wagon maker, a gardener, and several cooks.

According to Savage's own description, the painting combined symbolism with naturalism. Washington's "Military Character" was represented by his uniform, the papers on which his arm rested represented his presidency, and Martha Washington was shown holding "the Plan of the Federal City, pointing with her fan to the grand avenue." The grandchildren were meant to represent the future of the nation. The only figure in the painting not mentioned by Savage was the black servant, perhaps because the presence of slaves was taken for granted.

Savage exhibited the painting in Philadelphia, in his "Columbian Gallery." In 1798, he published an engraving of it, which he marketed to an international audience.
Image Credit: Painting by Edward Savage; Andrew W. Mellon Collection; Photograph © 1998 Board of Trustees; National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Related Entries:
The Marriage of Washington to Martha Custis
Washington's letter to Robert Morris
John Ferling on Washington's attitudes towards slaves

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