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The almost perfect portrait of George Washington


In 1832, the U.S. Senate purchased a portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale for $2,000. The painting was placed in the Senate Chamber.


In 1894, the U.S. Senate approved a motion made by Senator Kyle of South Dakota to purchase another portrait of George Washington. In the motion, Senator Kyle claimed the work to be "almost perfect" and the "only copy of the Peale portrait of Washington." According to Senator Kyle, the Peale version was "fast cracking" and "liable to deteriorate" . The motion was approved to spend $1,000 for the second portrait.


The artist of the second Washington portrait was one of America's leading women in portrait art, Miss Eugenia Shankland. Miss Shankland's portrait of George Washington had been exhibited in the room of the Committee on Foreign Relations. Once acquired by the Senate, it was moved to the office of the Vice President, Adlai Stevenson, of the Grover Cleveland administration. It was later placed in the Library of Congress building.


Miss Eugenia Shankland was a member of the "Life Class" of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The name, Eugenia, is the feminine first name related to the masculine version, Eugene, from the Greek word 'eugene' meaning 'well-born', or 'good genes'. Eugenia's father was a highly respected clerk for the U.S. Senate. In her later years, Eugenia resided at the Sisters of Visitation in Wilmington, Delaware. She was eminently successful having painted several fine alter pieces for various churches in the capitol city. In 1890, she had been given exclusive permission to copy Peale's portrait of Washington at the Senate House. Eugenia died in 1896. Her portrait of George Washington is her most renowned work of art.


Sometime after Eugenia's death, her portrait of Washington was deaccessioned by the Library of Congress and, it is believed, acquired by (or gifted to) her sister, Miss Marguerite Shankland. Marguerite was the Pennsylvania State Registrar for the Daughters of the American Revolution. She later married Barritt Hinman Sawyer of New York. The painting resurfaced at a Parke-Bernet (now Sotheby's) Auction in 1953. The painting's provenance thereafter remains undocumented until it was consigned to auction in 2017 from a private collection in New York City.

The Senate Records between July 16, 1894 and August 2, 1894 describe the Shankland painting on 3 separate occasions. In each, the work is titled a "copy of Mr. Peale's original portrait of George Washington by Miss Eugenia Shankland." The phrasing is consistent and specific.



However, the verso, as it appears today, adds more to the story. The code "#OH8" in a rectangular box appears traced over multiple times. It has no apparent meaning or known reference. The print style of the word "Collection" contrasts the cursive style of the other words and names.





First, using an image editor, I remove the printed word "Collection". We now see a consistent style in the remaining text.







I remove the rectangle shaped box surrounding the code.








I remove traced portions of the code and restore consistent script to match the exact title description used by the U.S. Senate. The script is now entirely consistent with the signature of Miss Eugenia Shankland, and the year 1890. We can assume the verso had been altered at some point to attribute the painting to Rembrandt Peale. I cannot find a record that the painting had ever been sold as a Peale, but it also hasn't been properly identified as the work of Eugenia Shankland for perhaps 120 years. With overdue respects to Miss Eugene Shankland - she is the artist of the "almost perfect" portrait of George Washington and perhaps the first woman to enter Congress using the power of art.