In a time when most Americans never once sat for a portrait, Alexander Hamilton was painted and drawn by artists that included Charles Willson Peale and John Trumbull, and James Sharples. There are portraits of him as a young officer during the Revolution, as a statesman, as the Secretary of the Treasury, and even as an ancient Roman in a marble bust by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi. Because of Hamilton’s early death following his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, there was a brisk business in posthumous, commemorative portraits, too, that were copies of earlier paintings. The most frequently reproduced portrait of Hamilton was painted by John Trumbull in 1806, and it’s also the most familiar to modern eyes as the basis for the image on the ten-dollar bill.
The portrait shown here, however, had been almost forgotten - until this week. The small (it’s only about 5” x 3”) watercolor sketch has belonged to members of the Hamilton family, quite possibly since it was first painted, and only this week was it publicly exhibited at the annual Winter Show in New York City.
The watercolor is the work of Irish miniature painter Walter Robertson (c1750-c1801). A skilled artist, Robertson practiced his trade in both Dublin and London, but his artistic abilities seemed unfortunately mixed with a lack of business acumen, and he declared bankruptcy in Dublin in 1792. Perhaps hoping for a fresh start, he traveled to America in 1793 with his friend, American-born artist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828). When Stuart settled first in New York City and then set up his studio in Germantown, PA, close to Philadelphia, Robertson followed, working as a copyist for Stuart. At that time, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States, and filled with potential patrons. Like Stuart, Robertson painted George Washington, doubtless hoping more commissions would follow.
He also painted a miniature of Alexander Hamilton, now believed lost. However, the miniature was engraved by George Graham in 1796, and printed by James Rivington. Based on this engraving, it appears that the watercolor shown here must have been a preliminary sketch for the now-lost portrait.
Unlike photographs, artist’s portraits are always subjective as to likeness. Still, this portrait of Hamilton seems much more relaxed, more confident, than in other, more familiar images. He’s shown in an army uniform and with his hair powdered. With a hint of a smile, he gazes to one side and away from the viewer. His face is fuller, and the famously pronounced Hamilton nose appears more in balance with the rest of his face.
At the Winter Show, the sketch is dated as c1795. My guess is that it might be a bit earlier, to 1794, when Hamilton once again put on a military uniform to join President George Washington as he led troops west to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Hamilton nostalgically remembered his earlier career as a young officer during the American Revolution as a time of heroic camaraderie, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he’d chosen to be portrayed as a soldier.
While the military bluster of the Whiskey Rebellion now does not seem like the new federal government’s finest hour, Hamilton was perhaps at the highest point of his life in the summer of 1794. As Secretary of the Treasury, he was one of the most important and powerful men in the country. He had seen many of his ideas and proposals realized, and he was closely linked to President Washington. The confidence that Hamilton exudes in this sketch would seem to belong to this era of his life - an era that would soon come to an end. By early 1795, family demands and rising personal financial pressures forced him to resign his treasury post and return to his private law career in New York City. His glory-days in politics and government were behind him.
For Walter Robertson, the best was past as well. According to the Dictionary of Irish Artists, he failed to find success in either Philadelphia or New York City, and sailed for India in 1795 to try his luck among the British employed by the East India Company. He died there c1801; few of his paintings from his time in America survive today.
For more about the portraits of Alexander Hamilton, see “The Life Portraits of Alexander Hamilton” by Harry MacNeill Bland and Virginia W. Northcott, The William & Mary Quarterly, Vol 12, No 2 (Apr, 1955).
Many thanks to Philippe Halbert and Hannah Boettcher for their assistance with this post.
Above: Detail, “Life Portrait of Alexander Hamilton” by Walter Robertson, c1795, descended through the Hamilton family.
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