James Sharples (circa 1751-1811)

James Sharples, pastel and oil portraitist and inventor, was born about 1751 in Lancashire, England. As a youth, Sharples had intended to enter the priesthood, spending some time in religious studies in France. He soon changed his plans, however, returning to England to embark on a career as an artist. Sharples developed a secondary interest in mechanical invention, an occupation in which he was much less successful than in his painting. As an accomplished portrait painter in oils, Sharples worked in Bath, Bristol, Cambridge, Liverpool, and London before coming to America in 1793 with his family. Upon their arrival, the Sharples traveled throughout New England by coach, selling an impressive number of pastel portraits, until settling in Philadelphia in 1796-97. In Philadelphia, Sharples specialized in cabinet-sized pastel portraits of the city’s leading citizens, including one of George Washington. The Sharples relocated to New York City around 1798-99, where James continued to pursue his successful portrait work. In 1801 the family returned to England and settled in Bath, but moved back to America in 1809. By this time, two of Sharples’ sons, James, Jr. and Felix, had also become professional artists.

Portrait of George Washington in Uniform

by James Sharples (circa 1751-1811)

Medium DetailPastel on paper
Dimensions28 1/2 x 23
Date Createdc. 1796
ProvenanceProvenance: Sabin’s, London; Collection of Herbert L. Pratt, New York, circa 1917; George C. Seybolt, Dedham, MA; Estate of George C. Seybolt, Sold at Northeast Auctions, NH, February 24, 2008; William Vareika Fine Arts LTD, Newport, RI.
Exhibited“Early American Paintings,” Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, February 3 - March 12, 1917.
LiteratureLiterature: Katherine McCook Knox, “The Sharples: Their Portraits of George Washington and his Contemporaries,” 1930, pp. 67, 90, ill. 53; Theodore Bolton, “Early American Portrait Draughtsmen in Crayons,” 1923, p. 80, no. 109.
CommentsThis portrait is of George Washington, painted circa 1796-97, around the time of the President’s farewell from office at the end of his second term. In this address Washington called upon U.S. citizens to maintain the Constitution as a “sacred” trust, to resist any attempt to “alienate any portion of our country from the rest,” and to “observe good faith and justice towards all Nations,” cultivating “peace and harmony with all.” The President is wearing the uniform that he assumed when he became Commander-in-Chief in 1789. He wore this uniform throughout his years in office, donning it also when he sat for life portraits, until his death in 1799. The uniform is now in the National Museum of American History. George W. P. Custis, Washington’s adopted son, is quoted as having said, “The Sharples portraits are the most truthful likenesses of Washington ever taken.”

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