BECK, George Jacob (1748 – 1812). Georgetown and the City of Washington. 1795.

  • $ 550,000.00
    Unit price per 


BECK, George Jacob (1748-1812).
Georgetown and the City of Washington.
Gouache and watercolor on paper in gold-lead frame.
c. 1795.
15 3/4" x 20 1/2" visible, 24" x 29" framed.

Provenance: Private collection, Philadelphia, PA; Dr. & Mrs. Irving Leavitt, Detroit, MI; Kennedy Galleries, New York, NY; Admiral & Mrs. E. P. Moore, Washington D.C.; Sotheby's, September 26, 2008 - $302,500.

Exhibited: Washington on the Potomac, Washington D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, February 20-April 3, 1982, Illustrated on p. 2; A Nation Emergers, Washington D.C., Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, June 15, 2012 - January 27, 2013; Nature's Nation: American Art and Environment: Princeton University Art Museum - October 13, 2018 - January 6, 2019; Peabody Essex Museaum - Februaru 2, 2019 - May 5, 2019; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art - May 25, 2019 - September 9, 2019.

The Earliest and Most Famous View of Washington D.C. - Widely Exhibited in many Museum shows.


This view is taken from above Georgetown on the district side, and shows Analostan Island (the former designation for Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the Potomac River, with Georgetown in the background on the left. George Beck was one of the earliest professional English-trained landscape painters in America, counting William Winstanley, William Groombridge, and Francis Guy as his contemporaries. Among "his pioneering depictions of the American wilderness" (Olsen), Georgetown and the City of Washington and A North View of the City of Washington, are important and evocative portraits of the Nation's Capitol at its renaissance.

Georgetown, which had been established in 1751 when the Maryland Legislature purchased sixty acres of land for the town during the reign of George II of Great Britain, was situated on the fall line- the farthest point upstream to which oceangoing boats could navigate the Potomac River. Georgetown eventually became a thriving port, facilitating trade and shipments of tobacco and other goods from colonial Maryland. Georgetown was frequented by President Washington, who worked out many deals there to acquire land for the Federal City. It was also home to Thomas Jefferson while he served as United States Secretary of State under Washington.

This incredibly rare watercolor by George Jacob Beck is the first view of Washington, DC and Georgetown. Beck completed this work at approximately the same time as his views of the Potomac River, commissioned by President George Washington in 1796 for his home in Mount Vernon. Washington was impressed by the artist’s ability to capture the beauty of his boyhood home and the site of his many land surveys, and purchased two companion views of Beck's Great Falls of the Potomac.

This watercolor gouache is clearly a companion in style and subject of The Potomac River Breaking through the Blue Ridge and Great Falls of the Potomac, both circa 1796-1797), combining as it does topographical detail with a Romantic atmosphere. Both of these works were purchased in January 1797 from Beck’s agent, Samuel Salter. They were hung in the New Room at Mount Vernon, where they may still be viewed today.

As evidenced in his views of the Potomac and Georgetown, Beck’s careful attention to light lends an ethereal quality to his landscapes. The figures in this view are bathed in the last light of dusk while the creeping shadows blot out the trees in the foreground. This work served as the original drawing for the aquatint Georgetown and Federal City, or City of Washington published in 1801 by Atkins and Nightengale, as well as for the decoration on Staffordshire china. Lauded as one of the greatest predecessors of the Hudson River School and a favorite artist of President Washington, George Jacob Beck’s artwork continues to be highly sought after today.

Beck "was one of the first individuals to push beyond the representational limits of topographical draughtsmanship" (Olsen). These watercolor gouaches of Washington is clearly a companion in style as well as subject to The Potomac River Breaking through the Blue Ridge and Great Falls of the Potomac (ca.1796-1797), combining as it does topographical detail with a Romantic atmosphere. Both of these works were purchased by George Washington in January 1797, from Samuel Salter (1768-1834) as Beck's agent, for $158.75. There were to be hung in the New Room that Washington had built at Mount Vernon following the Revolutionary War, where they can be viewed today. The original entry in Washington's account book recording the acquisition can be seen amongst the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia.

Though listed in the 1806 Lexington directory as a "Portrait Painter," Beck is most famous for his landscape work, which unquestionably contributed to the popularity of American views during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. He was the most experienced, if not the first of the early landscape painters to work in the United States. Six of his American views, engraved and published by T. Cartwright of London, have been collector's items for some time. This quote, taken from Virgil Barker of American Painting in 1950, demonstrates Beck’s enduring influence within the art world: "Among all the foreign-trained who came here in the Federal era, George Beck had the most substantial and the best mastered landscape style. Beck's superiority in craft enabled him to render the rocks with a strength sufficient to withstand the turbulent rush and falling weight of water [and] to construct the forms of rock and tree, to give the solidity of earth, and even to modulate values toward a distant horizon."

Beck’s early philosophy is accessible in the captions he wrote for two of his views published in the European Magazine and London Review in 1785. In these captions he expressed his lifelong interest in science and mathematics. "Portraits of men, things and places," according to Beck, serve the same purpose in the mimetic arts as experiments do in science. He added that the usefulness of drawing is linked to its ability to provide insight into nature’s secrets. A transitional figure, Beck was caught between eighteenth-century rational thought and nineteenth-century Romanticism. With his pioneering depictions of the American wilderness, he formed a stylistic bridge to Cole’s romantic landscapes. He leaned toward the aesthetic of the picturesque, sacrificing accuracy for pleasing effects and celebrating ruggedness over smoothness.

George Beck and his wife emigrated to America in 1795, drawn to the newly settled wilderness, which Beck was to portray so successfully in this paintings as well as his others. They settled in Baltimore where George first painted scenes of the Potomac, and achieved immediate success. Following Washington's commission William Hamilton, "the well-known patron of English and American artists, commissioned Beck to paint a view of the Woodlands, Hamilton's elaborately landscaped estate in Philadelphia. At Hamilton's suggestion, in 1798 Beck settled in that city, then the capital of the country and its largest, most cultivated urban center; he opened drawing schools for men and women to subsidize his income, and his wife established a ladies' seminary" (Olsen). However their time in Philadelphia was relatively short-lived. Beck first appears in the Philadelphia directory of 1798 as a landscape painter at 106 Walnut Street; in 1799 and 1800 on South Fifth Street near Chestnut; in 1801, 1802, 1803, at 51 South Fifth Street; and in 1804 ad 1805 as living near 51 South Fifth Street, all in very close proximity to Samuel Salter's properties... he may well have been a tenant.

The legendary beauty of the American west tempted the Becks to leave Philadelphia in 1804 and explore the western frontier: Pittsburgh, Niagara Falls, Ohio and Kentucky. "The newly settled wilderness held a great appeal for [Beck], providing the opportunity of exploring relatively unspoiled nature while living in a social milieu where he and his wife hoped to attract patrons and students. In Kentucky he developed a freer style, and his works increasingly celebrated the unspoiled richness of the frontier. They reveal his fascination with the subjective power and mystery of nature" (Roberta Olsen "Drawn by New York", pages 63-66).

George Beck is one of the earliest professional English trained landscape painters in America. Among his ‘pioneering depictions of the American wilderness’, Georgetown and the city of Washington is an important and evocative portrait of the Nation’s capitol at its peak.