Depictions of Wythe

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Portrait of George Wythe by David Silvette (1979). At the William & Mary School of Law.

In an 1806 letter to the painter, Charles Willson Peale (1741 – 1827), Thomas Jefferson laments that he only has a "shade in profile" of his friend and mentor, George Wythe, "whose portrait was never taken."[1] Jefferson sent Peale a copy of the profile, from which a portrait was made by "filling the out line of your late friend Judge Wythe. Whether you may find it equally striking as to likeness I cannot say, for my remembrance has not furnished me with any Idea's of the form of his features, therefore it is all guess work."[2] The current location of Peale's portrait of Wythe is unknown, and it was probably dispersed with Jefferson's estate after his death.

Despite what Jefferson tells us, there is a portrait identified as Wythe—in minature—in the collection of the [R.W. Norton Art Gallery, in Shreveport, Louisiana, attributed to Henry Benbridge (1743 – 1812). It is a watercolor on ivory, 1½ inches tall by 1¼ wide, and depicts Wythe as a young man. A 1971 text on Benbridge published by the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, states, however: "Since the history of this portrait does not go back beyond 1941, it is suspect. The technique is not characteristically Benbridge."[3] This does not necessarily mean it is not an authentic portrait of Wythe.

Wythe's profile in shadow (or "shade," as Jefferson describes it) was taken twice: once, in 1804, by William Bache (1771 – 1845); and another at an earlier time in Wythe's life. William DuVal describes the two profiles in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in December, 1806, after Wythe's death: "The profile you have, will shew his appearance at that period of his Life, & the one I have, will exhibit a strong likeness a few years before his untimely Death"

Images of George Wythe

See also

  • [Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale, 22 November 1806], The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1, General Correspondence, 1651-1827, Library of Congress.
  • [Charles Willson Peale to Jefferson, 13 December 1806], The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1, General Correspondence, 1651-1827, Library of Congress.
  • Robert G. Stewart, Henry Benbridge (1743-1812): American Portrait Painter, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971), 81.