Georges Washington (French 1827-1910), The Skirmish, oil on canvas, signed G. Washington lower right, 23.5″ x 19.75″
Passions threatened on distant battlefields are perfectly suited to the unleashed fury of Romanticism. George Washington incorporates bold brush strokes and expressive colors to heighten the motion and emotion of two enemies in the midst of combat. Fascinated by the new frontiers, the artist spent long periods in North Africa painting colorful scenes of mounted Arab warriors. When he wasn’t traveling, Washington participated in the French Salon and was awarded for his vibrant canvases depicting action and adventure in distant lands.
George Washington is considered one of France’s most successful nineteenth century Orientalist painters, renowned for his vibrant and animated scenes of Arab cavaliers and huntsmen set in Algeria, Morocco and Turkey. His exhibited and commissioned works are now part of many important public and private collections, enthusiastically praised by connoisseurs of the European Orientalist School for their veracity, vitality and virtuosity.
Washington was born out of wedlock in 1827, and as an adult adopted the pseudonym Georges Washington, after America’s first President. His mother, Marie Besse, did not officially acknowledge her son until 1868 – after the forty-one year old had received critical acclaim and gained popular appeal.
Like most aspiring young artists, Washington moved to Paris, where he trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts under François-Edouard Picot (1786-1868). Best known for his historical battle scenes, Picot provided Washington with a strong grounding in draftsmanship and sound composition, to which the young artist added his own personal style and emotional intensity. Washington’s appreciation for vibrant colors and intense drama was enhanced by his study of the Romantic painters, especially Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who also used color and expressive brushstrokes to heighten the visual effect and elicit strong emotion.
Washington’s love of the Middle East and its customs was encouraged by his father-in-law, the military and Orientalist painter Henri-Félix-Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815-1884), whose daughter, Anne-Léonie Philippoteaux, Washington married in Paris on August 6, 1859. Not long after finishing his training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Washington embarked on the first of many trips to Algeria. Fascinated by the people and their colorful costumes and exotic customs, Washington made his Paris debut at the French Salon in 1857 with an image of Saharan nomads, titled Plaine du Hoiina (Sahara Algérien).
Washington was a prolific painter and a popular exhibitor at the Salon for over forty years. One of his first works to gain critical acclaim was Nomades dans le Sahara en Hiver (exhibited 1861; subsequently acquired by the Musée de Lille). Further success came when in 1893 he showed Le Combat and Cavaliers Arabes dans le Désert des Sables, for which he was awarded a third class medal. In addition to Paris, Washington showed his work in Moscow in 1881, and was posthumously honored when four of his paintings were included in the Exposition Coloniale de Marseille in 1906.
In 1879, following two commissions from a Belgian company, the artist travelled to Morocco and subsequently Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, Beyond ferocious battle scenes and cavalry skirmishes, Washington added to his repertoire more serene images — nomads resting beside an oasis and horses with their riders enjoying a respite by the Mediterranean Sea. On rare occasions Washington depicted scenes of his homeland, including two equestrian compositions, Derby de Chantillyn en 1863 (shown at the Salon in 1864) and Steeple-chase à Vincennes (shown at the Salon in 1865). In 1886, he traveled to the United Sates for the unveiling in Philadelphia of a cyclorama (a monumental 360° panoramic view) of the Battle of Gettysburg by his brother-in-law Paul-Dominique Philippoteaux (1846-1923). Philippoteaux painted two earlier versions of the famous battle, assisted by five other artists, including Philippoteaux’s father and Georges Washington.
On the death of the artist’s father-in-law, Henri-Félix-Emmanuel Philippoteaux, in 1884, Georges Washington and his wife Anne-Léonie were left a modest apartment in Montmartre, which was later occupied by the Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. In 1884 Washington sold thirty of his paintings at the Drouot Paris auction house, and using the proceeds as well as the money left to him by his father-in-law, he and his wife embarked on a farming enterprise in Brittany – which proved to be a financial disaster. Before returning to Montmartre, Washington revisited America in 1888 to undertake a commission for another panorama.
Following the death of his wife, Washington retired from painting and went to live with his daughter and son-in-law at Douarnenez on the Brittany Coast; he died shortly after on November 19, 1901.
The Skirmish not only exemplifies Washington’s expertise as an equestrian painter, but also his knowledge and understanding of Arab customs and costumes, which he witnessed firsthand during one of his many travels to the Middle East.