Ornament – panel, Les Grands Hommes, 1856–57; Made by Jules Desfossé (French, 1816-89); Paris, France; Block-printed on paper; Gift of Dr. Gertrude Bilhuber in memory of her father Ernst Bilhuber, 1949-78-1

Portraiture on Wallpaper with George Washington

This wallpaper panel contains a block-printed portrait of George Washington rendered about half-life size. It is unusual to have portraits featured on wallpaper but is seen more often on panels as opposed to repeating designs. The portrait is printed in a monochrome colorway of tans and brown imitating statuary, on a combed ground simulating oak wood grain. Washington is shown dressed in military attire standing on a plinth with a cannon and shot at his feet. Part of a four panel set called Les Grands Hommes or The Great Men, the other figures included Ben Franklin, Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. These were produced by the Parisian firm of Jules Desfossé for the American market.

Washington is one of a very few persons who appears on multiple wallpapers, as the museum collection has three wallpapers paying tribute to Washington, two of which contain a portrait. I am trying to think of other famous people who have appeared on wallpaper, and they are really very few. Most of the figures are male military heroes, such as General Nathanael Greene, a major general of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War, and Commodore Isaac Hull, who sank a British frigate in the War of 1812. It was quite common to feature Gods and Goddesses on Neo-classical wallpapers (Hercules is frequently seen, as is Venus.) Maybe wallpaper manufacturers following this format to elevate the status of these American heroes.

Personally speaking, I think the reason the use of portraits and busts on wallpaper is not more common is the repetitive nature of wallpaper. Unlike the Washington panel shown here most wallpapers repeat. So it would not be a single representation of a person but a full wall or a full room. The thought of having all these eyes watching you, every time you enter the room, could be a bit creepy. Call me paranoid, but something to think about.

Museum Number: 
1949-78-1