Genre scene with the dying George Washington in bed attended by family and servants
After George Washington’s death in 1799, images commemorating the nation’s founding father proliferated in art and public monuments. With the first centennial in 1876, his likeness had a resurgence in the arts and popular culture.
In this centennial folk painting, based on a widely-distributed print, Washington is joined by members of his household, including servants and enslaved individuals, several of whom weep in a doorway adjacent to his deathbed. At the time of his death, approximately 317 people were enslaved at Mount Vernon. Finalized in his dying hours, Washington’s will stipulated that his own slaves be freed after his wife’s death. The artist’s prominent inclusion of people of color in this dramatic depiction of Washington’s death may be a reference to that decision.
George Washington’s death on December 12, 1799 launched the United States into mourning. Commemorative images of the nation’s founding father proliferated in public monuments, private art commissions, and even in samplers stitched by schoolgirls. With the first centennial in 1876, Washington’s likeness had a resurgence in the arts and popular culture. Painted in that year, John Meister’s scene of Washington on his deathbed is likely based on an earlier print published by Nathaniel Currier. Though lacking the rigor of academic painting, Meister’s work reflects Neoclassical principles, with its triangular composition, stage-like setting, and the dramatic gestures of Washington’s bedside companions. In the late 19th century, many Americans had growing doubts about their country’s leadership. They found Washington’s image reassuring, and elevated him to the status of mythic hero.
historical figures; deaths; interiors
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