Old Exchange Exhibit

The city of Charleston's famous portrait of George Washington first hung in the Great Hall of the Old Exchange Building, a new exhibit there details the mystery over whether artist John Trumbull deliberately slighted the city in his final work (at right). Robert Behre/Staff

It may be the most enduring, most discussed art mystery in Charleston's long history:

What was artist John Trumbull up to when he painted President George Washington shortly after his 1791 visit to Charleston?

For decades, the question has been served up to visitors inside the ornate council chambers in Charleston City Hall where the famous portrait currently hangs in the most prominent place.

And now, a new exhibit at the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon — the original City Hall and where the portrait first hung in July 1792 — raises the same question.

The correct answer, or at least an answer that most everyone finds satisfactory, may forever be lost to time.

'Activities other than heroic battle'?

The tale that has been told to countless thousands of visitors inside City Hall goes something like this:

The city commissioned Trumbull to paint Washington's portrait shortly after his swing through the South, including a week-long visit in Charleston. Trumbull's first attempt, now displayed in the Yale University Art Gallery, was rejected because it shows Washington in 1777 at the Second Battle of Trenton, not in 1791 in Charleston.

While Trumbull agreed to do another — and Washington agreed to sit for another portrait — Trumbull remained miffed at the city. So while he painted Washington at Haddrell's Point in Mount Pleasant, with Charleston in the background, he did something creative with Washington's horse.

Specifically, the horse's rear faces the viewer. His tail, just above the city's skyline, is raised, as if the animal were going to — and it's at this point in the story where docents get to trot out their favorite euphemisms — defecate on the city.

Sometimes, the story says Trumbull painted in the steed only after securing approval — and payment — from the city.

That's what former council chambers docent Carol Ezell said. "They paid him and I think he said, 'Great, I have just a few finishing touches.' I think he added the horse after he was paid. It’s so transparent and so obvious an insult.

A version of this is also retold in "George Washington's Journey: The President Forges a New Nation," a recent book by historian T.H. Breen.

"Trumbull remained in an irascible mood. The new horse carried the message. Unlike the Trenton painting in which Washington's charger seems to face the oncoming contest with as much determination as did its master, the Charleston horse exposes a good portion of its backside to the viewer," he wrote.

"Moreover, the horse's tail seems suspiciously rigid, as if the animal might be contemplating activities other than heroic Revolutionary battle. To make matters even more alarming, the tail appears poised over the skyline of the city."

'Just look at it' 

Edwin Breeden researched the portrait story as part of two new Old Exchange exhibits that feature the most historic happenings inside the building: Washington's 1791 visit and the 1788 convention during which South Carolina became the eighth to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

The exhibit on Washington's visit details his five stops he made at the Exchange, and it discusses how his presidential trip was aimed at strengthening the newly formed nation.

But it also features large reproductions of both Trumbull portraits of Washington — the one now in New Haven, Connecticut and the one hanging just down the street. "An artist's revenge?" it asks.

Breeden described Trumbull's intention as a possible case of revenge, but by no means a clear-cut one.

"There's no documentation of him doing this out of spite," Breeden said. "There's no documentation about the city not being happy with the painting.

"But just look at it."

'Full vigor of his manhood'

Historian Nic Butler also recently looked into the portrait's history for his Charleston Time Machine podcast, and as with much historical research, he found as many questions as answers.

In this case, the question persists largely because the city's early records disappeared in the chaos around the end of the Civil War. He refers to this 1865 tragedy as the city's "great memory loss."

"So if the council members who commissioned the work expressed dissatisfaction in 1792 at a council meeting, the records of that meeting disappeared a long time ago," he said.

Trumbull's 1841 autobiography tells the tale of the two portraits but makes no mention of what the horse is doing.

Meanwhile, others have rejected the notion that the city ever rejected a Trumbull portrait.

In 1897, then Charleston Museum Director Dr. Gabriel E. Manigault, was quoted in The News and Courier disputing that the city turned down Trumbull's earlier work of Washington. Manigault suggests Trumbull misremembered.

"The only explanation that suggests itself is that the autobiography may have been undertaken when old age and consequent bad memory had intervened," the article noted, "and, having executed more than one replica, which were sent to different cities, the artist may have become confused as to the places to which they had gone."

Manigault also offered his critique of the city's portrait: "The picture is not as carefully finished as a whole, as the New Haven one is, but the face is completely so. It is unusually strong and represents Washington in the full vigor of his manhood."

Butler noted Charleston newspapers of the 1790s make no mention of the portrait conundrum.

City Council never rejected the first Trumbull painting, Butler said, but early S.C. congressman William Loughton Smith of Charleston might have during a visit with Trumbull in Philadelphia — at least according to the autobiography. Butler said the portrait might have been Smith's idea in the first place: He was intimate with both Trumbull and Washington.

"In short, the three main characters of this story were on very good terms," Butler said. "Why would the artist wish to insult Smith, or the city of Charleston?"

That said, Washington's horse remains a proverbial elephant in the room.

"Equestrian portraits are a dime a dozen, but how many of them put the horse's hindquarters in such a prominent position? Probably very few," Butler said.

Angela Mack, director of the Gibbes Museum of Art, said a rear facing horse is not necessarily that unusual. "It was used to reinforce the idea of 'repose' rather than battle ready," she said.

Still, Butler said the visual cues and clues in the painting appear to be saying something, "and that something does not appear to be complimentary."

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Robert Behre works as an editor and reporter. He focuses on the historical landscape, including architecture, archaeology and whatever piques his interest on a particular day.

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