This handsome, confident portrait of Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) in a Continental Army uniform is probably a posthumous image. After his senseless death in a duel with Aaron Burr, there was a demand for portraits of Hamilton. In the shock of his abrupt demise his controversial personality was overshadowed by the memory of his public service that had culminated with six years as secretary of the treasury during which the war debt was repaid and the nation placed on a firm financial footing. Prior to that, his authorship of fifty-one of the eighty-five essays of The Federalist was instrumental in building support for the ratification of the Constitution. Still earlier he had served in the Continental Army, first as General Washington’s aide-de-camp, and then as a distinguished field commander at Yorktown. It is the military period of Hamilton’s life that the British-born artist William J. Weaver decided to commemorate in his portrait.
Weaver had probably come from London in 1794, where he had been employed by Joseph Booth at the Polygraphic Society. This establishment specialized in making inexpensive copies, called “polygrams,” of painted portraits by a still-unclear method utilizing printmaking techniques and hand-finishing. What is known of this process may be discovered in two articles by Paul D. Schweizer, who has also examined the eight known versions of Weaver’s portrait of Hamilton and resolved old confusion surrounding the artist’s first name.1Paul D. Schweizer, “The ‘Strong and Striking’ Likenesses of William J. Weaver (ca. 1759–1817): An Introduction,” in Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 17, no. 2 November 1992): 1–36; and Schweizer, “William J. Weaver’s Secret Art of Multiplying Pictures,” in Painting and Portrait Making in the American Northeast, Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, Annual Proceedings, 1994 (Boston: Boston University, 1995), 151–66. The State Department Hamilton is one of three that were painted entirely by Weaver’s hand, without mechanical intervention.
Painted with a sure brush, the flesh tones of the portrait are fine, the modeling is subtle, and the powdered gray hair is soft and tactile. The white neckcloth and shirt ruffles are touched in with thin, fluid pigment. The pure profile was almost certainly derived by Weaver from a head modeled in 1792 and carved in 1794 by Giuseppe Ceracchi, an excellent and ambitious Italian sculptor, who had arrived in America in 1791. His bust of Hamilton was widely known. Weaver copied the sculpted profile and reproduced it in the small format he favored, adding the Continental Army uniform from another source.
William Dunlap, in his early history of American artists, wrote a brief entry on Weaver dated 1797 in which he said, “His portrait of Alexander Hamilton attracted attention from the strong likeness.”2William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1969), 2: part 1, 64. He went on to say that the portrait had been given in exchange to John Trumbull, who destroyed it. There is some reason to doubt the latter statement, and in any case we know there are several “original” images. Weaver could have made his first portrait of Hamilton—possibly this painting—anytime after the autumn of 1794, when Ceracchi brought his marble portrait bust to America. Therefore, we have not insisted on a precise date but have bracketed it 1794–1806. But the series of polygram copies should be dated 1805–1806.Weaver’s “Polygraphic Art” was first announced in a New-York Evening Post advertisement in January 1805. And in a December 1806 advertisement in the Charleston, South Carolina, Courier Weaver invited patrons to his studio, where “the friends of the late General Alexander Hamilton, residing in South Carolina, will be convinced” that he could produce “as good if not better LIKENESSES than have ever appeared in this country.”3Schweizer, “William J. Weaver’s Secret Art,” 159. The author suggests that all the extant versions of Weaver’s Hamilton must be posthumous since there should be the two stars of a major general, his rank from 1798, on his epaulet, and that if alive “Hamilton probably never would have allowed” a portrait with one star. How Hamilton could have prevented it is unclear, but in any case Weaver is alluding to Hamilton’s significant Revolutionary War service.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.