It may seem ironic that in 1783, the son of a Loyalist to the British Crown would make his mark on history by drawing the portrait of General George Washington. Yet, at the young age of 17, William Dunlap’s artistic talents were so unique that he would not only create a remarkable portrait of the commander of the Continental Army who would become our nation’s first President of the United States – but Dunlap would later go on to author the first book on the history of art in America.
The artist was born on February 19, 1766, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey where his father, Samuel, was a merchant dealing in household goods. Samuel Dunlap moved his wife and young son, William, to New York in 1777. Loyal to King George, Samuel felt this family should seek refuge in New York during the tumult of the Revolutionary War. New York and the areas surrounding Manhattan were firmly under the control of the British who had defeated the Colonial forces under Washington’s command. Washington was forced to flee from the beaches and farms on Long Island to White Plains, then across the Hudson River to New Jersey.
At the age of 17, Dunlap visited the home of the Van Horne family and created portraits of both John Van Horne and his wife. General Washington was living nearby in a residence know as the Rocky Hill House which had served as the General’s headquarters during much of the American Revolution. Washington, freed from the burden of the battlefield, was, according to recollections by Dunlap, enjoying life with a renewed sense of joy and was a friend and frequent visitor to the Van Horne home where the renowned General admired the in-progress portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Van Horne. Dunlap then created two life sketches – one of George Washington and another portrait of Martha Washington using pastels on paper. Unfortunately, the portrait of Mrs. Washington has not survived but the portrait of George Washington was later gifted to the United States Senate by a member of the Van Horne family.
William Dunlap sailed to London in 1784 to study with the renowned American-British artist, Benjamin West. After his return to America, Dunlap worked in the theater but found little success as a playwright or managing legitimate theaters. Eventually William Dunlap resumed his career as a painter of portraits.
Aside from his artistic talents, Dunlap wrote and self-published several books including "The History of the American Theatre in 1832." Two years later, Dunlap self-published his "History of the Rise and Development of the Arts of Design in the United States”. His book contained a record of many artists who worked during the early years and is considered the first book on American art and artists to be published in the United States.
William Dunlap was a member of Holland Masonic Lodge No. 8 in New York City. He passed away on September 28th, 1839.