The Marquis de Chastellux draws a sketch of General Washington

June 28, 2012

As de Chastellux rode up, he observed Lafayette in front of the house, conversing with an officer, tall of stature, with a mild and noble countenance. It was Washington. De Chastellux alighted and was presented by Lafayette. His reception was frank and cordial. Washington conducted him into the house. Dinner was over, but Generals Knox, Wayne, and Howe, and Colonels Hamilton, Tilghman and other officers were still seated round the board. Washington introduced de Chastellux to them, and ordered a repast for the formed and his aides-de-camp: all remained at table, and a few glasses of claret and Madeira promoted sociability. The marquis soon found himself at ease with Washington. “The goodness and benevolence which characterize him,” observes he, “are felt by all around him; but the confidence he inspires is never familiar; it springs from a profound esteem for his virtues and a great opinion of his talents…”

We have been tempted to quote freely the remarks of de Chastellux, as they are those of a cultivated man of society, whose position and experience made him a competent judge and who had an opportunity of observing Washington in a familiar point of view.

Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon, 1784. Painted by by Rossiter and Mignot.

Speaking of his personal appearance, he writes: “His form is noble and elevated, well-shaped and exactly proportioned; his physiognomy mild and agreeable, but such that one does not speak in particular of any one of its traits; and that in quitting him there remains simply the recollection of a fine countenance. His air is neither grave nor familiar; one sees sometimes on his forehead the marks of thought, but never inquietude; while inspiring respect he inspires confidence, and his smile is always that of benevolence.

“Above all, it is interesting,” continues the marquis, “to see him in the midst of the general officers of his army. General in a republic, he has not the imposing state of a marshal of France who gives the order; hero in a republic, he excites a different sort of respect, which seem to originate in this sole idea, that the welfare of each individual is attached to his person.”

Painting of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale.

He sums up his character in these words: “Brave without temerity; laborious without ambition; generous without prodigality; noble without pride; virtuous without severity; he seems always to stop short of that limit where the virtues, assuming colors more vivid, but more changeable and dubious, might be taken for defects.”

Washington Irving, Life of George Washington (New York: The Co-operative Publication Society, Inc., n.d.), Vol. I, pp. 420, 422-423.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 190


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