Writer and historian Hugh Howard has, for more than decade, immersed himself in researching and writing about the Revolutionary generation. In addition to The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art, his numerous books include two on Thomas Jefferson’s architectural legacy, Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson, Architect, as well as Houses of the Founding Fathers, a wide ranging look at lives and life style at the turn of the nineteenth century. His new book, Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War revisits the War of 1812 as experienced by James and the inimitable Dolley.
Neoteric Art: So what got you interested in writing about the portraits and painters associated with George Washington?
Hugh Howard: I relished the prospect of insinuating myself into a series of two-dimensional likenesses. Mime-like, I hoped to enter the picture spaces created by Messieurs Trumbull, Stuart, Peale and the rest, to push their boundaries in a way that I could better glimpse George Washington. It seemed a good way of looking at the General who, despite the uncountable barrels of ink spilt in writing about him, remains a poorly understood figure.
I also liked the notion of getting acquainted with Charles Willson Peale, an immensely likable and highly voluble man; I wanted to observe John Trumbull, half aristocrat, half artist, mostly frustrated; and to become acquainted with the genius of the bunch, Gilbert Stuart, who was a man with a troubled mind (art historian Dorinda Evans makes the case he was bipolar), who self-medicated with alcohol, retired to his bed for lengths of time, and yet made quite wonderful paintings.
The adventure proved most enjoyable as, I trust, The Painter’s Chair, suggests.