Selections from the C. W. McAlpin Collection
The C. W. McAlpin Collection of portraits of George Washington came to The New York Public Library as a gift in 1942. While the collection of 1,700 items consists mainly of prints on paper, it also includes textiles, medals, statuettes, boxes, pins, and other objects bearing Washington’s likeness. Many of the prints were copied from paintings by prominent artists of Washington’s time, such as Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, and Edward Savage, and it is interesting to observe various printmakers’ distinct interpretations of those works. Other prints, usually termed “fictitious” and based on the artists’ own imaginations, were not intended to offer a true likeness. Many prints were intended for the walls of public and private buildings, but some served utilitarian purposes, gracing currency, bonds, labels, calendars, and upholstery and, quite often, illustrating books and magazines. A number of prints in the collection are represented in multiple states, or degrees of completion.
Charles Williston McAlpin (1865–1942) was a member of a prominent family involved in the industrial and social development of New York City in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. A graduate of Princeton University, he was elected first secretary of that institution in 1900, a post he held until 1917. During his retirement he devoted much of his time to philanthropic activities and to his favorite pastime, “collecting engraved portraits of Washington.” At the time of his death McAlpin had assembled one of the most complete collections of Washington portraits in the country.
The taste for likenesses of George Washington (1732–1799) originated during his role as commander in chief of the Continental Army and increased during his tenure as first president of the United States. His death prompted another surge of printed portraits and tributes. During the 19th century the publication of numerous literary works on Washington necessitated the production of printed portraits for illustrations. The centenary of Washington’s death likely rekindled interest in collecting his portraits, as, perhaps, did the patriotism stimulated by U.S. involvement in World War I in 1917–18.
The enormous volume and variety of likenesses of Washington have prompted some collectors to attempt to acquire, or catalogue, as many of these items as possible. In his pioneer work The Engraved Portraits of Washington (1880), William S. Baker listed fifteen noted collectors, in addition to himself, who provided him with material for his research. One of these was Thomas Addis Emmet, whose extensive collection of Americana came to the Library in 1896. Another was Charles Henry Hart, whose Catalogue of the Engraved Portraits of Washington (1904) is still the most complete inventory of Washington portrait prints, despite its omission of lithographs, relief prints, and utilitarian prints. Hart cited thirteen other important collectors, including C. W. McAlpin, and documented “880 distinct plates and 634 different states, making a total of 1514 individual prints personally examined and recorded. Surely no other man has been so honored as Washington.”
This exhibition has been made possible by the continuing generosity of Miriam and Ira D. Wallach.