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George Washington

2 of 22 portraits of George Washington

George Washington, by Ellen Sharples; James Sharples, 1796-1797 -NPG 174 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

George Washington

by Ellen Sharples, after James Sharples
1796-1797
9 3/8 in. x 7 3/8 in. (237 mm x 188 mm) uneven
NPG 174

This portraitback to top

James Sharples arrived in New York in 1796 with his third wife Ellen, an amateur artist who became increasingly professional; they stayed in America until 1801. [1] His pastels, drawn with the aid of a pantograph in finely ground crayon applied with a camel’s hair brush on thick grey paper, [2] could be completed within two hours. [3] Charges were $20 for a full face and $15 for a profile. [4] It now seems impossible to distinguish between the hands of husband and wife; it was evidently James who first drew the portraits, but the four in the NPG seem more likely to be copies by Ellen (see Priestly NPG 175 and NPG 2904 and NPG 2903).
Washington's sittings, among the last he gave, are undocumented, [5] but Eliza Custis, Washington’s granddaughter, considered the Sharples profile ‘an admirable likeness, the profile taken by an instrument, and critically exact’; the example in the NPG Washington (76.17) bears a label written by her giving the date as 1797. [6] Copies by Ellen Sharples came to be highly regarded. In December 1804 she wrote that her copies of Washington and Priestly were then 'executed in a very superior style', [8] and she exhibited portraits of Washington and Priestly together at the RA 1807 (851); back in New York in 1809 she again described copying the Washington portrait, ‘drawn by Mr S on our first visit to America’. 6)
Twenty-six copies are illustrated by Knox; [7] examples are in the Wadsworth Athenaeum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and in the Sharples collection in Bristol Art Gallery; 8) a single example showing the profile reversed (K. McC. Knox, The Sharples, 1930, no.27), belonging to Mrs DeButts in 1931, was then (perhaps questionably) considered the likely original. The type was engraved on five occasions in the late nineteenth century; the plate by H. B. Hall described as after the portrait painted from the life by Sharpless in 1796, that by P. Hall as from the Original portrait in the possession of the Evans family. Painted by Mrs E. Sharpless. [9]

Footnotesback to top

1) They returned in 1809 and James died in New York in 1811. In due course their sons, Felix (c.1786-c.1814) and James jr. (1789-1839), joined the family portrait business (K. McC. Knox, The Sharples, 1930, p 18).
2) K. McC. Knox, The Sharples, 1930, p 12.
3) J. H. Morgan & M. Fielding, The Life Portraits of Washington, 1931, p 395.
4) K. McC. Knox, The Sharples, 1930, p 9, citing W. Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of Arts of Design in the United States, 1834, II, pp 70-71.
5) E. Miles, George and Martha Washington, Portraits from the Presidential Years, 1999, p 47. Catharine Finch told James Yates (letter of 11 December 1860; NPG archive) that William Taylor, was one of several Birmingham Unitarians who persuaded Priestley and Washington to sit to Sharples; 'each [of the Unitarians] ordering one or more copies'.
6) E. Miles, George and Martha Washington, Portraits from the Presidential Years, 1999, pp 47, 49.
7) K. McC. Knox, The Sharples, 1930, pp 13, 118.
6) K. McC. Knox, The Sharples, 1930, p 120.
7) Ibid., nos.15-29, 31-37, 39-41, 43, 45-47; see also J. H. Morgan & M. Fielding, The Life Portraits of Washington, 1931, pp 398-409.
8) Cat. of the Sharples Coll., Bristol, 1910, no.3.
9) C. H. Hart, Catalogue of the Engraved Portraits of Washington, 1904, nos.703-07.

Referenceback to top

Knox 1930
K. McC. Knox, The Sharples, 1930, no.35 (as by Mrs Sharples).

Physical descriptionback to top

Powdered hair, black coat, white neckcloth; deep blue hatching in the upper left background area.

Provenanceback to top

William Taylor; his step-daughters, the Misses Eaton, of Liverpool and Leamington, by whom given to the sitter’s grand-daughter, Miss Catharine I. Finch of Birmingham, who gave it to James Yates1 1860; presented by him, with a portrait of Joseph Priestley [NPG 175], 1864.

1 As by Ellen Sharples, see Priestley NPG 175. This provenance is given in letters to Yates from Catharine Finch of 11 December 1860 and from Miss G. Eaton of 26 December 1860 (NPG archive).


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, National Portrait Gallery, 2004, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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