George Washington Papers

Tobias Lear to Richard Varick, 19 July 1790

Tobias Lear to Richard Varick

New York July 19th 1790.


In compliance with your request signified in your polite letter,1 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.2 with great Respect I have the honor to be Sir, Your most Obedt Servt3

Tobias Lear.
Secretary to the President of the United States.

ALS, NHi: Richard Varick Papers.

Richard Varick (1753–1831) moved from Hackensack, N.J., to New York City in 1775 to practice law and was an aide to generals Philip Schuyler and Benedict Arnold during the Revolution. He was cleared by a court of inquiry of any complicity in the latter’s defection to the British in 1780 and served as GW’s recording secretary from 1781 to 1783, having as his responsibility the supervision of the transcription of GW’s official correspondence. Varick was appointed recorder of New York City in 1784 and assisted in the codification of the state statutes in 1786. He was speaker of the New York state assembly in 1787 and 1788 and state attorney general from 1788 to 1789. Varick succeeded James Duane as mayor of New York City in 1789 and wrote to Lear in that capacity (GW to Varick, 1 Jan. 1784, source note; Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:507).

1Varick’s letter to Lear of the same day reads: “The Corporation of this City have this Day resolved to request the favor of the Presidt of the United States to permit Mr Trumbull to take his Picture to be placed in the Hall, as a monume[n]t of the Respect of the Inhabitants of this City for him.

“I am directed to communicate this request in Person & will be obligid to You to be informed at what time it will be agreeable to the Presidt to be waited on” (NHi: Richard Varick Papers).

2Varick apparently presented GW with the official request at the appointed hour on 20 July, for a copy of the resolution of the Common Council is found in DLC:GW.

John Trumbull, who served briefly as GW’s aide-de-camp in the summer of 1775, dined with the Washingtons after his arrival in New York City from London in November 1789 and obtained permission to impose upon the president’s valuable time for art’s sake. GW sat for Trumbull for one or two hours on 10, 18, 20, and 27 Feb., 4, 11, and 22 Mar., and again, after Trumbull returned from Philadelphia, on 6, 8, 12, and 13 July 1790. On 1 Mar. 1790 GW even allowed the artist to accompany him on his regular early morning equestrian exercises, as Trumbull “wanted to see me Mounted.” GW noted that these sittings were for “my pictures in some of his historical pieces” and “a Portrait of me at full length which he intended to present to Mrs. Washington.” No surviving diary entries of GW’s for 15 July 1790 to 20 Mar. 1791 have been found in which to trace GW’s further New York sittings for Trumbull (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:7, 31, 36, 37, 38, 40, 44–45, 51, 86, 87, 94; Trumbull, Autobiography, description begins Theodore Sizer, ed. The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist, 1756–1843. 1953. Reprint. New York, 1970. description ends 22–23).

Trumbull, then, was already involved in painting a full-length portrait of GW when he received the commission from the New York city council (see frontispiece). On 30 Aug. 1790 Trumbull wrote from New York to his mentor Benjamin West: “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 [72in. × 108in.] Portrait of him for this City which I am now finishing. . . . it is to Hang in the most elegant Room in America & in a very perfect light.” The 21 Sept. 1790 issue of the New-York Journal, & Patriotic Register announced the completion of this portrait and provided a description of it (Trumbull, Autobiography, description begins Theodore Sizer, ed. The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist, 1756–1843. 1953. Reprint. New York, 1970. description ends 165–66n., 326; Eisen, Portraits of Washington, description begins Gustavus A. Eisen. Portraits of Washington. 3 vols. New York, 1932. description ends 2:471–72).

This portrait provided GW an opportunity to awe the Creek Indians who had accompanied Alexander McGillivray to New York for treaty negotiations with the federal government. McGillivray and his guide, Marinus Willett, had left Richmond and arrived at Fredericksburg on 9 July 1790, where they visited Betty Washington Lewis and “viewed the place in which he [GW] was bred, and the cottage in which his mother died” (Virginia Herald [Fredericksburg], 15 July 1790). On 17 July the peace party entered Philadelphia where “These chiefs were received by our citizens with every mark of attention. The bells were rung; the artillery fired a federal salute, and with the light infantry companies escorted the chiefs to the Indian Queen, where lodgings were prepared for them; and a great number of people assembled to behold the largest body of Indians, that has appeared in this metropolis for many years. On Sunday they attended divine service at Christ church” (Pennsylvania Gazette [Philadelphia], 21 July 1790; Pennsylvania Journal and the Weekly Advertiser [Philadelphia], 21 July 1790). Two days later, on 20 July 1790, the Creeks left for Elizabethtown, N.J., in the morning. There they boarded a packet under the direction of Major [John] Stagg [Jr.] in the morning of 21 July 1790 and landed at Murray’s wharf in New York after 2:00 p.m. (New-York Journal & Patriotic Register, 23 July 1790; see also James Wood to GW, 8 July 1790, n.5, St. Tammany’s Society to GW [letter-not-found entry], 24 Aug. 1790, source note; Willett, Narrative of the Military Actions of Col. Marinus Willett, description begins William M. Willett, ed. A Narrative of the Military Actions of Colonel Marinus Willett, Taken Chiefly from His Own Manuscript. New York, 1831. description ends 111–13).

Trumbull, who described the Creek chiefs to Abigail Adams as “perfect models,” wrote: “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. I had been desirous of obtaining portraits of some of these principal men, who possessed a dignity of manner, form, countenance and expression, worthy of Roman senators, but after this I found it impracticable; 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; I however succeeded in obtaining drawings of several by stealth” (Mitchell, New Letters of Abigail Adams, description begins Stewart Mitchell, ed. New Letters of Abigail Adams, 1788–1801. Boston, 1947. description ends 56–57; Trumbull, Autobiography, description begins Theodore Sizer, ed. The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist, 1756–1843. 1953. Reprint. New York, 1970. description ends 166–67; see also Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 17:xxix-xxx, plate opp. 218).

3Varick also wrote to the vice-president: “The Corporation of this City have applied to the President . . . 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 eligible to perform the painting in & that he will take Care that no possible Injury or Inconvenience shall be occasioned by this Indulgence to him.

“The whole of the Hall being devoted to the Use of Congress, I take the Liberty of thus addressing You Sir, as well as the Speaker of the House of Representatives on the Subject & of soliciting your permission, under a persuasion that your respective Assent will be sufficient, without troubling the Senate or House” (Varick to John Adams, 21 July 1790, MHi: Adams Papers). Adams apparently remarked to Judith Sargent Murray that “To speak truth of the President . . . is impossible. No painter will ever be able to do him justice, for that which he possesseth beyond any other man, the art of the limner, or the language of the panegyrist, however glowing, can [n]ever reach” (Eddy, “Judith Murray,” description begins Richard Eddy. “Mrs. Judith Murray.” Universalist Quarterly and General Review, n.s., 18 (1881): 194–213; 19 (1882): 140–51. description ends 145).

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