Probe means portrait can no longer be a lie

Authentication: Officials at Washington College `had to do what we thought was right,' despite their hunch that the piece considered extremely valuable was a forgery.

October 27, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN - George Washington slept here. Really. They named the local college after him.

What he did not do was pose for a portrait thought to have been the work of early 19th-century painter Rembrandt Peale. A painting of the first president that has hung in prominence at Washington College for nearly 60 years turns out to be a fake.

Although the painting was considered the college's most valuable piece of Washington memorabilia when two Baltimore businessmen donated it in 1944, college officials aren't the least bit concerned about the revelation.

In fact, it was a college administrator who blew the whistle, bringing in an art historian who is a Peale specialist.

"Some of us kind of suspected it wasn't what it appeared to be," says Joseph Holt, vice president for administration. "In the '40s there was euphoria over the gift, especially since the college had lost a lot of artifacts in a fire in 1918."

The detective work started two years ago when the college began planning events to mark the bicentennial of Washington's death.

Washington - who passed through this then-bustling Chester River port many times on his way to or from Philadelphia - is an important figure in the history of the college. He donated the equivalent of $200,000 at its founding in 1782, and records show that he attended board meetings and one commencement.

Once an inventory began of artifacts, prints and documents in connection with the bicentennial, it seemed obvious that the college ought to authenticate the Peale painting. If the portrait, known as George Washington as Master Mason because he was wearing an apron and holding the trowel of a Free Mason, was found to be the real thing, it would be worth millions.

Peale, who came from a family of painters named by their father for famous artists, completed numerous portraits of Washington and other historic figures over his long career that began at age 13.

Holt says having the painting authenticated was a money issue, especially for insurance, but college officials also wanted the truth.

"As an institution that prods students to do honest research without being fearful of the answers, we had to do what we thought was right," Holt says.

"It doesn't diminish the painting. It's still a significant painting, the only one that portrays him in Masonic garb," he says.

According to a 1932 newspaper story in the Baltimore American, the "lost Rembrandt Peale Portrait" was "rescued from dusty obscurity" in a Baltimore attic. With the painting came a letter, supposedly from Peale.

The letter was also a fake, says University of Pennsylvania art historian Carol Eaton Soltis, who says she knew almost immediately that the painting was a forgery.

"It's always wonderful to find something you can add to the body of an artist's work, but when I came face to face with this painting, I knew something wasn't right," says Soltis. "The attitude at the college was that they didn't want to misrepresent something."

Soltis, who suspects that the painting was done shortly before it was uncovered in that Baltimore attic, says she can't determine the age of the painting without more detailed scientific analysis.

As for technique, the portrait is a primitive, two-dimensional forgery that fails to come close to the sophistication of Rembrandt Peale's work.

Other clues, Soltis says, were in the letter that accompanied the painting. The handwriting didn't match other samples of Peale's penmanship.

The portrait continues to occupy a significant place on campus, hanging in the college's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

Now it's just one of many prints and copies of paintings of Washington that hang on walls all over campus. After all, the college also doesn't own a painting of Washington by renowned portrait artist Gilbert Stuart.

"When you talk about Americana, there's always a desire to unearth something significant," says Kees de Mooy, the center's program director. "The history of forgery goes back thousands of years."

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