Washington at the City of Charleston, 1792, by John Trumbull
Friday, November 09, 2018 Dr. Nic Butler

Have you seen the tail of the horse in the portrait of George Washington that hangs in Charleston’s City Hall? Have you heard the tale of how that painting came to be, and why the horse’s rear-end is so prominently displayed? Is this depiction an insult, or an inside joke? The popular version of this local story doesn’t offer the most accurate rendering of the facts, so let’s use the Time Machine travel back to the early 1790s and explore the documentary evidence behind this artistic mystery that I call “the tail of Washington’s horse.” 

A few days ago, my friend Robert Behre at the Charleston Post and Courier emailed to say he was writing a piece about a new display at the Old Exchange Building. The display, which includes several large, illustrated panels, draws attention to the fact that the City of Charleston’s valuable, life-size portrait of George Washington, painted by John Trumbull in 1792, was originally displayed on the upper floor of the Exchange building that served as City Hall at the time. Robert was writing a short piece for the newspaper about the new exhibit and the old presidential portrait, and he asked if I had any insight into the “mystery” surrounding the horse standing behind Washington in that painting.

In case you’re not familiar with this “mystery,” here’s a short version of the story that’s been published in many books and told by generations of tour guides and docents in Charleston: Shortly after George Washington’s week-long visit to Charleston in May 1791, the City Council of Charleston commissioned the celebrated artist John Trumbull to paint a full-length portrait of the president. Trumbull finished the painting, but the city rejected it because it depicted Washington and his trusty gray steed, Blueskin, at they appeared in New Jersey in 1777. The city asked Trumbull to paint another portrait depicting the president as he appeared when he visited Charleston in 1791. The artist was irritated and perhaps insulted by this this request, but he dutifully complied. In the spring of 1792 the City Council accepted Trumbull’s second portrait, which depicts Washington and his gray horse (not Blueskin) at Haddrell’s Point (now part of the old village of Mount Pleasant), with the city of Charleston in the distance. To express his displeasure with the City Council of Charleston, so the story goes, Trumbull depicted the president’s horse with its hind-quarters facing the viewer and its tail raised, the city of Charleston in the background positioned directly between the animal’s hind legs. From this pose, many people have concluded that the artist was sending a not-so-subtle message to the people of Charleston. As thousands of people have remarked over the years, the visual cues in the painting suggest that an imminent movement of the animal’s bowels will soon cover the city with manure. One version of the story notes that the slightly-unfinished horse in the painting was an afterthought, added by the vengeful artist only after he received his fee from the city.

So, Robert asked me, is there any historical validity to this story? That’s one of the important points raised by the new display at the Old Exchange, which began this conversation. I’m familiar with the painting, of course, and it’s impossible not to notice the odd position of the horse, but, no, I’d never investigated the “mystery” of how the painting came to be. Sure, I’ve heard the stories, but I’m certainly not an expert on the topic. After a bit of quick research, however, I found a few clues that piqued my curiosity. There is a bit of a paper trail surrounding the genesis of Trumbull’s famous painting, but the popular story about the artist’s revenge on the City of Charleston is flawed. The facts have been scrambled a bit over the past two centuries, and misunderstandings have been passed through the generations as established facts. A quick review of the surviving documentary evidence can get the story back on a factual track, but the “mystery” of the tail, or rather the tail-end, of Washington’s horse will require some analysis of the clues within the painting itself. Did the artist paint the animal’s pose as an insult to the City of Charleston? I’ll supply the documentary evidence, but then I’ll ask you to see the painting for yourself and supply your own conclusions.


The Origins of Charleston’s Portrait of Washington:

Several months ago I wrote an essay for the Charleston Time Machine about George Washington’s week-long visit to Charleston in early May 1791. Towards the end of the president’s visit, on May 7th, the thirteen members of our City Council resolved to commission the artist John Trumbull to paint a portrait of Washington, to be “placed in the city hall, as the most lasting testimony of their attachment to his person, to commemorate his arrival in the metropolis of this state, and to hand down to posterity the resemblance of the man, to whom they are so much indebted for the blessings of peace, liberty, and independence.”[1] Nearly one year later (the exact date is unknown), Trumbull’s portrait arrived in Charleston. On Friday the 13th of July, 1792, the intendant (mayor) of Charleston invited the pubic to view the life-size portrait of the president in the City Hall in the upper floor of the Exchange.[2] That brief summary, I regret to inform you, is the full extent of the story as it survives in local records.

We don’t know more about the story of Charleston’s portrait of Washington because the records of our City Council from the early 1790s no longer exist. They disappeared during an episode that I like to call “the great memory loss of 1865,” when Union soldiers and civilian tourists from the north flooded into Charleston and looted much of the city. As a result of this destructive episode, we have no written record of the chain of events and conversations surrounding the commission, execution, and delivery of the city’s portrait of Washington in the early 1790s. We’ll never know the official story of precisely when Trumbull’s portrait of Washington arrived in Charleston, or how much City Council paid for the work, or exactly when the city issued payment to the artist. Most importantly, there is no surviving record, or at least no official account, of City Council’s reaction to the life-size canvas they received from Trumbull in the early months of 1792.[3]

So, in the absence of any local records concerning the city’s commission of the Washington portrait, are there any other records that might help illuminate the story? Yes, in fact, we have the artist’s own version of the events in question. Colonel John Trumbull (1756–1843) was a celebrated portrait painter in his day, and was especially well-known among the veterans of the American Revolution. In the years after the war, Trumbull painted a number of the most famous veteran officers, including multiple portraits of General Washington. In the spring of 1791, just before the president’s visit to Charleston, Trumbull spent two months in the city, where he captured the likenesses of “the Rutledges, Pinckneys, Middleton, Laurens, Heyward, &c.”[4] Shortly after returning to his studio in Philadelphia, Trumbull received a commission from the City of Charleston to paint a life-size portrait of the president, which he dutifully completed. Fifty years later, in 1841, the artist published a brief memoir of that commission, which I’ll let John Trumbull tell in his own words:


In 1792 I was again in Philadelphia, and there painted the portrait of General Washington, which is now placed in the gallery at New Haven, the best certainly of those which I painted, and the best, in my estimation, which exists, in his heroic military character. The City of Charleston, S.C. instructed William R. Smith [sic; William Loughton Smith], one of the representatives of South Carolina [in the U.S. Congress], to employ me to paint for them a portrait of the great man, and I undertook it con amore, (as the commission was unlimited,) meaning to give his military character, in the most sublime moment of its exertion—the evening previous to the battle of Princeton [which occurred on 3 January 1777]; when viewing the vast superiority of his approaching enemy, and the impossibility of again crossing the Delaware, or retreating down the river, he conceives the plan of return by a night march into the country from which he had just been driven, thus cutting off the enemy’s communication, and destroying his depot of stores and provisions at Brunswick. I told the president my object; he entered into it warmly, and, as the work advanced, we talked of the scene, its dangers, its almost desperation. He looked the scene again, and I happily transferred to the canvas, the lofty expression of his animated countenance, the high resolve to conquer or to perish. The result was in my own opinion eminently successful, and the general was satisfied. But it did not meet the views of Mr. Smith. He admired [the painting], he was personally pleased, but he thought the city would be better satisfied with a more matter-of-fact likeness, such as they had recently seen him—calm, tranquil, peaceful.

Oppressed as the president was with business, I was reluctant to ask him to sit again. I however waited upon him [President Washington], stated Mr. Smith’s objection, and he cheerfully submitted to a second penance, adding, “Keep this picture for yourself, Mr. Trumbull, and finish it to your own taste.” I did so—another was painted for Charleston, agreeable to their taste—a view of the city in the background, a horse, with scenery, and plants of the climate; and when the state society of the Cincinnati of Connecticut dissolved themselves, the first picture, at the expense of some of the members, was presented to Yale College.[5]



John Trumbull’s “alternate” portrait of Washington arrived in Charleston sometime in the spring of 1792. General William Moultrie was among the locals who viewed the painting, perhaps in April of that year, and wrote a letter to the president in Philadelphia expressing his approval of the work. Washington replied to Moultrie on May 5th, 1792, and complimented the city’s collective taste in the fine arts: “I am much pleased to hear, that the picture by Colonel Trumbull gives so much satisfaction. The merit of this artist cannot fail to give much pleasure to those of his countrymen, who possess a taste for the fine arts; and I know of no part of the United States, where it would be put to a stronger test than in South Carolina.”[6] Charleston was, at that time, renowned for its wealth and cosmopolitan tastes in the arts and music, and the nation’s first president seemed genuinely pleased that the city’s connoisseurs had approved of Trumbull’s work.

From these two documentary sources, can we deduce two important facts that appear to contradict the popular story surrounding Charleston’s portrait of George Washington. First, John Trumbull specifically noted that it was William Loughton Smith, not the City Council of Charleston, that rejected the first version of the portrait. The artist’s first canvas never made its way to Charleston, and could not have been rejected by our City Council. Second, the elite circle of men who viewed Trumbull’s second portrait on its arrival in Charleston did not recoil in horror at its unveiling. If they took offense to the relatively prominent position of the horse’s hind quarters, they did not communicate that fact to the artist or to the president. How do these facts impact the popular Charleston story of the “mystery” of Washington’s portrait? Personally, I think we need explore the role of William Loughton Smith in this affair, and then we need to take a closer look at the paintings in question.


William Loughton Smith:

William Loughton Smith (1758–1812) was the youngest son of Benjamin Smith (1717–1770), a very wealthy Charleston merchant who made a fortune in the business of importing and exporting trade goods and human beings. At the age of eleven, William went to Europe and commenced a long and very privileged education that included the study of languages, history, law, and the fine arts. An accomplished violinist, he played chamber music with his friends in England during the American Revolution and collected paintings and objets d’art while taking the Grand Tour of Europe. He returned to Charleston in 1784, after the war, and immediately launched himself as a lawyer, politician, and capitalist. Apparently well liked and respected, Smith was elected in 1789 to represent the lowcountry in the First United States Congress in New York.[7] From the start of his political career on the national stage, William Loughton Smith was known for his interest in the commercial power of Britain, the place where he lived nearly half of his young life. This attachment put him in direct opposition with the more democratically-minded leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, as well as the veterans of the Revolution who still harbored a lingering distrust of their former enemy.

During the early sessions of the first Congress in New York in 1790, John Trumbull was also in the city, hard at work on a life-size portrait of the nation’s first president. That 1790 painting, which depicts General Washington as he appeared in 1782 at Verplanck’s Point in New York, was presented as a gift to Mrs. Martha Washington and is now on display at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Before it left New York, however, the canvas was admired by members of their City Council, who in July of 1790 commissioned from Trumbull a similar painting, depicting Washington at the evacuation of the city in 1783, for New York’s City Hall (where it still resides).[8] One month later, in early August 1790, William Loughton Smith visited Trumbull’s studio and admired the artist’s new, life-size painting. Fortunately for us, Smith wrote down his impression of the work in a letter sent to Edward Rutledge of Charleston. That letter was among several documents purchased by the South Carolina Historical Society in the 1960s, so yesterday I walked up Calhoun Street to visit the society’s archive at the Addlestone Library at the College of Charleston. With the society’s kind permission, I’m including here a photo of the relevant portion of Smith’s letter to Rutledge, which is dated New York, August 8th, 1790. Although it was written nearly two years before the completion of Trumbull’s Charleston portrait, this letter offers some very important background for understanding our city’s portrait of Washington: 


Trumbull is painting a magnificent picture of the president; the figure [is] 7 foot high—a great likeness—it is for the corporation of New York[,] who are to give a hundred Guineas [£105 sterling] for it—I saw it yesterday & I felt fired with desire to have such a one in Charleston—can’t our corporation [that is, City Council] do the same? Would the citizens of Charleston contribute to such a gratification with less zeal than those of New York? I think not—suppose then you feel the pulse of the corporation; if they are not warmed with the bare mention of it, say no more to them, but inquire whether a hundred Guineas cannot be presently raised by subscription for the purpose, & put my name immediately after yours for the same sum you subscribe; or let the expense be divided equally among all the subscribers: such an opportunity may never offer again—if I receive your orders, I will prevail on Trumbull (with whom I am very intimate) to send you a piece of painting for the decoration of our new state house which will delight your eyes and all the rest of your life.[9]


From this enthusiastic account in the summer of 1790, we learn that William Loughton Smith was “fired with desire” to procure a similar portrait of Washington for the City of Charleston. Smith claimed to enjoy a “very intimate” friendship with the artist Trumbull, and that claim is confirmed by the fruits of a relationship that lasted for at least several years. Besides acting as the principal agent between the City Council of Charleston and the artist, Smith also commissioned Trumbull to paint his own portrait, which was completed in 1792 (and now owned by the Yale University Art Gallery). Smith was not present in Charleston when Washington visited the city in 1791, but he arrived a few days after the president’s departure.[10] Back in his home town, Smith probably agreed with the gentlemen of City Council to represent the city in its negotiations with Trumbull, but no record of such arrangements can now be found.


Rejecting the First Portrait:

From this point in the story, we have to use a bit of imagination to reconstruct the narrative. After his brief visit to Charleston in the summer of 1791, William Loughton Smith returned to his office in Philadelphia (where Congress had relocated in late 1790) and, at some point, began a conversation with John Trumbull about executing a life-size portrait of Washington, similar to the two that Trumbull had recently painted while in New York. In his 1790 letter to Edward Rutledge, Smith mentioned the possibility of raising the funds to pay for the portrait by means of a public subscription; that is, creating a list to which individuals could pledge or subscribe money to the project, which money they would pay after the completion of the work. Subscriptions were a very common form of fund-raising in eighteenth century America and Britain, frequently used to support the completion of books, musical compositions, and works of art. Mr. Smith probably met with Trumbull in Philadelphia in the late summer of 1791 to ask the artist his price for executing such a painting. With a figure settled in writing, Smith would have communicated with his friends in Charleston, including the members of City Council, to inform them of the requisite sum. Here in Charleston, someone drafted a subscription list and began circulating it in town. Once the requisite sum had been pledged, the list would have been forward to Mr. Smith in Philadelphia, who would have then met with the artist to order the painting formally. All of these steps apparently transpired in the autumn of 1791.

As we heard from Mr. Trumbull himself a moment ago, the artist threw himself into this project “con amore.” Trumbull recalled that the commission from the City of Charleston “was unlimited,” a phrase that implies that the city’s agent, William Smith, gave Trumbull free license to paint the president in whatever manner suited the artist’s temperament. For his part, Trumbull decided “to give his [Washington’s] military character, in the most sublime moment of its exertion.” That is to say, the artist chose to depict Washington at one of his most dramatic and heroic moments in his military career during the American Revolution—the evening previous to the battle of Princeton, which took place on the 3rd of January, 1777. Trumbull described his plan to President Washington, who agreed to act the part. Conjuring up memories of that tense evening, in which he had but moments to contemplate the fate of his army, Washington’s face and posture recreated the tension of that dramatic episode, which the artist carefully recorded onto canvas. The general’s trusty horse, Blueskin, is shown rearing up on his hind legs, expressing his own readiness for battle.

At the end of 1791, when John Trumbull completed his heroic life-size painting of General Washington at Princeton in 1777, the artist evidently felt a great deal of pride in his accomplishment. The painting was, as Trumbull later wrote, “eminently successful, and the general was satisfied.” Enter into the studio, now, the client’s agent, thirty-three-year-old William Loughton Smith. As we have already heard, Smith considered himself to be on “intimate” terms with Colonel Trumbull, and a connoisseur of the arts. He was certainly a wealthy, well-travelled man, but I can’t help but wonder if Trumbull viewed him as a bit of a dandy. Smith was, by all the accounts of his contemporaries, a bit too attached to British customs and manners, and he was criticized during his time for holding elitist views. According to Trumbull’s memoirs, the younger Smith “admired” the painting he intended for Charleston and “was personally pleased” with the historical depiction of the heroic general, but, after a bit of reflection and critical thought, he expressed some reservation about the finished product. Mr. Smith “thought the city would be better satisfied with a more matter-of-fact likeness,” Trumbull later remembered, “such as they [the people of Charleston] had recently seen him—calm, tranquil, peaceful.” In short, William Loughton Smith asked the famous artist to try again.

We might never know whether or not John Trumbull felt any resentment or indignation at William Smith’s rejection of his heroic portrait of Washington, but I’m sure the tone of the conversation between the two gentlemen remained civil and respectful. At this point, Mr. Smith’s role in this story disappears for want of further documentary evidence, but he certainly continued to participate in the completion and delivery of the portrait. As for John Trumbull, his memoirs state that he acquainted President Washington of the situation and asked for a second series of sittings. The president agreed, and the rest is history. The rejected canvas went to Connecticut, and has remained there for more than two centuries. Did Washington feel slighted by Mr. Smith’s rejection of the first portrait? Probably not, because the two men apparently enjoyed a very good personal relationship. William Loughton Smith was a frequent guest at the president’s Virginia home, Mount Vernon, and they occasionally traveled together.[11] In short, the surviving documentary evidence reveals no hint of a personal slight or disrespect intended for the City Council or the people of Charleston.

In fact, many people in Charleston seem to have been unaware that Trumbull had executed two paintings for our City Council. The story of William Smith’s rejection of the first canvas might have been known to the city leaders in the 1790s, but knowledge of it apparently faded in the nineteenth century—even after the publication of Trumbull’s autobiography in 1841. In the early months of 1897, for example, the director of the Charleston Museum, Dr. Gabriel Edward Manigault, expressed dismay when he read about the two portraits Trumbull had painted for Charleston in two different publications. Manigault wrote to the author of one story in McClure’s Magazine “to correct his error.” The author, Charles Henry Hart, replied and informed Manigault that he had simply copied the story from Trumbull’s own autobiography, which was published in 1841. Dr. Manigault took issue with the artist’s memory, however, and suggested that Trumbull must have been mistaken in the number of paintings he executed for the City of Charleston, since the artist had written his memoirs at an advanced age, fifty years after the incident in question. Apparently misunderstanding Trumbull’s account of Smith’s rejection of the first painting, Manigault said “the Charleston portrait of Washington by Trumbull has been here since its completion, and we have never heard that [City] Council was dissatisfied with it when it arrived.”[12]

Within a few years after Dr. Manigault’s expression of disbelief, however, the City of Charleston had embraced the story of its rejection of Trumbull’s first canvas. Starting in 1914, the city’s own Clerk of Council, Joseph C. Barbot, published a series of brief and inaccurate sketches of the history of the city’s Washington portrait.[13] Rather than acknowledging William Loughton Smith’s important role in this story, Barbot repeated the popular misconception that it was the City Council, not Smith, that had rejected Trumbull’s first portrait. Although another local art historian, Anna Wells Rutledge, corrected the city’s official narrative in 1943, the skewed version of the story has remained popular for more than a century.[14]

Here on the Charleston Time Machine blog, I’ve collected digital images of the four portraits of Washington that John Trumbull painted between 1790 and 1792. I invite you to view them yourself, study the similarities and differences in their respective compositions, and consider the implications. Trumbull’s second portrait for Charleston is the only one to show the horse with his head leading away from the viewer and the animal’s hindquarters in a more prominent position. The horse’s tail is raised, yes, but it’s also raised in two of the other portraits. In fact, the horse’s stance in the Charleston portrait is nearly a mirror image of the animal in the portraits owned by the City of New York and the Winterthur Museum. Like the figure of Washington, the horse in our Charleston portrait appears calm and relaxed. But why are its hind-quarters so prominently displayed? Anyone familiar with equestrian behavior will tell you that a horse will show you his or her rear end when they’re feeling obstinate. So why would John Trumbull offer to William Loughton Smith, the people of Charleston, and the president of the United States, this horse’s disrespectful salute? Are we perhaps reading too much into this old piece of canvas? It is indeed a mystery, and I’ll leave it up to you to form your own conclusions. Visit the Council Chamber at Charleston’s City Hall to see the painting yourself, or visit the Old Exchange to see the new display that compares Trumbull’s different versions. The past isn’t boring. It’s still with us, and it’s not even over yet.



[1] In a review of the president’s recent visit, [Charleston] City Gazette, 14 May 1791, page 3: “City Council, Saturday, the 7th May, 1791. ¶ On motion, resolved unanimously, That his honor the intendant [Arnoldus Vanderhorst], in behalf of the city council and their constituents, be desired to request of George Washington, Esq; president of the united states, that he will be pleased, when it is convenient to him, to permit his portrait to be taken by col. Trumbull, in order that it may be placed in the city hall, as the most lasting testimony of their attachment to his person, to commemorate his arrival in the metropolis of this state, and to hand down to posterity the resemblance of the Man, to whom they are so much indebted for the blessings of peace, liberty, and independence. ¶ Extract from the journal, ¶ P. Bounetheau, C[lerk]. [of] C[ouncil]. ¶ In consequence of the above resolve, his honor the intendant waited on the president, and requested his portrait, to which he readily assented.”

[2] I read through the local newspapers of spring 1792 but found no mention of the arrival of Trumbull’s portrait. It was certainly in Charleston before 5 May 1792, when George Washington acknowledged William Moultrie’s approval of the work. See [Charleston] City Gazette, 13 July 1792, page 3: “The intendant’s compliments, and informs the citizens the portrait of George Washington, Esq; president of the United States, is now put up in the City Hall, the doors of which will be open from 6 to 10 in the morning, and from 4 to 7 o’clock in the evening, (Sunday’s excepted) for the inspection of those who may choose to view the same. July 13.”

[3] Beginning in 1785, the City Council of Charleston published an annual summary of the city’s accounts, including expenses and income, in one or more of the local newspapers. I examined each of the city’s published annual accounts for the years 1791 through 1799, but found no mention of the portrait or Mr. Trumbull. In the financial summary of 1795, however, the city’s list of “contingent charges” included an unspecified sum appropriated for “a curtain, &c. round the President’s portrait.” See [Charleston] City Gazette, 5 September 1795: “Statement of the City Funds: Expenses and Income of the City Corporation, from the 1st of September, 1794, to the 1st of September, 1795.”

[4] John Trumbull, Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters of John Trumbull, from 1756 to 1841 (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1841), 165.

[5] Trumbull, Autobiography, 166–67.

[6] Anna Wells Rutledge, Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture in the Council Chamber, City Hall, Charleston, South Carolina (Charleston, S.C.: The City Council, 1943), 22.

[7] For more about Smith life and career, see George C. Rogers Jr., Evolution of A Federalist: William Loughton Smith of Charleston (1758–1812) (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1962). See also Nicholas Michael Butler, Votaries of Apollo: The St. Cecilia Society of Charleston, S.C., and the Patronage of Concert Music, 1766–1820 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 125, 154, etc.

[8] Trumbull, Autobiography, 164.

[9] Letter from William Loughton Smith to Edward Rutledge, dated New York, 8 August 1790, in the William Loughton Smith Papers, 1774–1834, collection No. 1119, South Carolina Historical Society. A transcription of this letter also appears in George C. Rogers, Jr., ed., “The Letters of William Loughton Smith to Edward Rutledge, June 8, 1789 to April 28, 1794,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 69 (April 1968): 133–34 (of 101–38).

[10] Rogers, Evolution of a Federalist, 225.

[11] Smith’s visits to Mount Vernon were frequent in the 1790s. See, for example, George C. Rogers, Jr., ed., “The Letters of William Loughton Smith to Edward Rutledge, June 8, 1789 to April 28, 1794,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 70 (January 1969): 38–39 (of 38–58). Smith’s August 1790 letter to Edward Rutledge, cited above, concludes with the news that Washington had invited Smith to accompany him on a recreational tour of Rhode Island.

[12] See Charleston News and Courier, 28 February 1897, page 6, “The Portrait of Washington.”

[13] Barbot’s first essay on this topic appeared in City of Charleston, Year Book, 1914, pp. 445–46, and expanded versions appeared in various city publications in subsequent years. An undated color reproduction of city’s portrait of Washington, printed during the administration of Mayor Burnet Maybank, includes a very inaccurate description of the painting’s history, written by Joseph C. Barbot, on the reverse side of the reproduction. See “Reproduction of Col. John Trumbull’s Famous Portrait of Washington” in the archives of the Gibbes Museum of Art.

[14] Anna Wells Rutledge, Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture in the Council Chamber, City Hall, Charleston, South Carolina (Charleston, S.C.: The City Council, 1943).


PREVIOUS: Keeping Time in Charleston’s Past
NEXT: The Pirate Hunting Expeditions of 1718
See more from Charleston Time Machine