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New York City Commissions a Portrait of George Washington by John Trumbull
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In this letter, New York City Mayor Richard Varick requests an opportunity to convey a request from the city to President George Washington to have artist John Trumbull prepare a portrait of him for display at City Hall.

RICHARD VARICK. Autograph Letter Signed, to Tobias Lear, July 19, 1790, New York, NY. 1 p., 7⅞ x 12⅛ in.

Inventory #26584       Price: $12,500

Complete Transcript

                                                                        New York July 19th 1790.

Dear Sir
            The Corporation of this City have this Day resolved to request the Favor of the President of the United States to permit Mr Trumbull to take his picture to be placed in the Hall as a Monument of the Respect of the Inhabitants of this City for him.

            I am directed to communicate this Request in person and will be obliged to You to be informed at what Time it will be agreeable to the presidt to be waited on.

                                                                        I am with Respect
                                                                        Dr Sir / Your Obedt Serv
                                                                        Richd Varick

Tobias Lear Esquire
Secretary to the Presidt of the United States.

Historical Background

On July 19, 1790, the Common Council of New York City passed a resolution to request that President George Washington permit John Trumbull (1756-1843) to paint a portrait of him, and directed Mayor Richard Varick, a former personal secretary to General Washington, to make the arrangements. Varick wrote this letter the same day to his former fellow secretary, Tobias Lear, who continued as Washington’s personal secretary throughout his presidency.

Lear responded the same day, “In compliance with your request signified in your polite letter, I have the honor to inform you that the President of the United States will have the pleasure to see you tomorrow at 10 O’clock, if that hour should be convenient & agreeable to you.”[1] The following day, Varick met with the president to present the city’s official request, which read, “Resolved that the President of the United States be requested to permit Mr Trumbull to take his portrait to be placed in the City Hall as a monument of the respect which the Inhabitants of this City bear towards him.”[2]

On July 21, Varick informed Vice President Adams that the City had requested of Washington “to permit Colo. John Trumbull take his portrait to be placed in the City Hall, to which the President has consented & Mr. Trumbull has suggested to me that as the portrait will be large the Room in the Hall in which those of the King and Queen of France are placed will be most desirable to perform the Painting in & that he will take Care that no Possible Injury or Inconvenience shall be occasioned by this Indulgence to him.” Because the whole Hall was “devoted to the Use of Congress,” Varick wrote to Adams, “as well as the Speaker of the House of Representatives on the Subject” to seek their permission, “under a persuasion that your respective Assent will be sufficient, without troubling the Senate or House of Representatives.”[3]

Washington had already sat for Trumbull several times in late 1789 and early 1790. Like Varick and Lear, Trumbull was also a former aide to Washington and had completed a full-length portrait of his former commander-in-chief, Washington at Verplanck’s Point, which he had given to Martha Washington as a gift. The background scene in that portrait is Washington’s September 1782 review of the Continental Army, performed as an honor for departing French commander Comte de Rochambeau and his army.

When Trumbull began the new portrait for New York City, entitled George Washington, which now hangs in the Governor’s Room of New York City Hall, he worked from the earlier painting and scaled it up from roughly 20 by 30 inches to nearly four times the size at 72 by 108 inches. Trumbull also changed the background scene to an idealized version of Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783, when the British departed New York City at the end of the Revolutionary War.

In late July 1790, when the painting was finished, a delegation of Creek chiefs visited New York City, and President Washington wanted them to see the painting. Trumbull described the scene in his autobiography: “At this time, a numerous deputation from the Creek nation of Indians was in New York, and when this painting was finished, the President was curious to see the effect it would produce on their untutored minds. He therefore directed me to place the picture in an advantageous light, facing the door of entrance of the room where it was, and having invited several of the principal chiefs to dine with him, he, after dinner, proposed to them a walk. He was dressed in full uniform, and led the way to the painting-room, and when the door was thrown open, they started at seeing another ‘Great Father’ standing in the room. One was certainly with them, and they were for a time mute with astonishment. At length one of the chiefs advanced towards the picture, and slowly stretched out his hand to touch it, and was still more astonished to feel, instead of a round object, a flat surface, cold to the touch. He started back with an exclamation of astonishment—‘Ugh!’ Another then approached, and placing one hand on the surface and the other behind, was still more astounded to perceive that his hands almost met.... they had received the impression, that there must be magic in an art which could render a smooth flat surface so like to a real man....”[4]

On August 30, 1790, Trumbull wrote to his mentor Benjamin West that “I have several small portraits of the President... one in particular which I have done for Mrs. Washington... is thought very like—& I have been tempted to disobey one of your injunctions & to attempt a large Portrait of him for this City which I am now finishing—the figure is near seven feet high compos’d with a Horse, & the back ground the evacuation of this Place by the British at the Peace.... How I have succeeded I hardly dare judge:—the World have approved the resemblance, it is to Hang in the most elegant Room in America & in a very perfect light.”[5]

Richard Varick (1753-1831) was born in New Jersey and studied at King’s College (later Columbia University) but did not graduate. He gained admission to the New York bar in October 1774. At the onset of the Revolution, Varick became a militia captain. He rose through the ranks to become aide-de-camp to Philip Schuyler, Muster-Master General for the Northern Army, and Inspector General of West Point. Though not in this last position at the time of Benedict Arnold’s treason, Varick had at one point been an aide to Arnold, and it took some time for his name to be cleared. Washington then named him a personal secretary at the end of the war, and he copied masses of Washington’s wartime letters. He served as Recorder of New York from 1783 to 1789, assemblyman and Speaker of the state assembly in 1788, state Attorney General from 1788 to 1789, and Mayor of New York from 1789 to 1801.

Tobias Lear (1762-1816) was born in New Hampshire and graduated from Harvard University in 1783. He served as personal secretary to George Washington from 1786 to 1799, including the entirety of Washington’s presidency. He also served as a diplomat during the administration of Thomas Jefferson to Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and North Africa during the First Barbary War (1801-1805 and for James Madison during the Second Barbary War (1815). He committed suicide by shooting himself with a pistol.

Condition: Loss to address panel from seal tear.

[1] Tobias Lear to Richard Varick, July 19, 1790, Richard Varick Papers, New-York Historical Society, New York, NY.

[3] Richard Varick to John Adams, July 21, 1790, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.

[4] Theodore Sizer, ed., The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist, 1756-1843 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 166-67.

[5] Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull, 326.

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