George Cooke (American, 1793-1849). Stephen Girard, Financier-Philanthropist, c. 1825.Oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 17 1/2 inches; signed ‘G. Cooke’ on lower left corner, in carved, gilt, period frame. Stephen Girard (1750-1831) was born in Bordeaux, France and first came to Philadelphia in 1776 by chance when the ship that he captained took refuge in that port, but adopted it as his new home and became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Having lost the sight of his right eye at age 8, and possessing little formal education, he was hard-working and driven, and by the 1790s, operated a successful mercantile establishment supplied by his own small fleet of vessels that traded in Europe, the Far East, and the Americas. By the following decade, he was Philadelphia’s wealthiest citizen and one of its greatest benefactors, making charitable contributions to numerous civic causes, from the care of orphaned children, to public education. Girard lived modestly and could be found working "hands-on" on his farm, as well as in his mercantile, banking and charitable endeavors, until his final days. "My deeds must be my life, " he once said, and "When I am dead, my actions must speak for me." It is calculated that he was the fourth richest American in history, based on the ratio of his estate’s value against the contemporary GDP. The bulk of his estate was dedicated to the public good, and its benefits are still evident today. Stephen Girard’s likeness has been perpetuated on bank notes and in history books by engravings made from a post-mortem portrait by Bass Otis. Done from personal recollection and a death mask, its shows the financier-philanthropist as he appeared in later life, with bald pate and blind right eye. This little-known life portrait by Maryland-born artist George Cooke was probably done in the mid-1820s. Girard’s facial features in this portrait compare favorably with those in Otis’s later work, but Girard is wearing a short wig, or "toupee, " to hide his baldness, although his blind eye is still apparent. Cooke, who left a career in business to pursue one in the arts, became an itinerant portrait and landscape painter during the 1820s, mostly working in Virginia and Washington, DC (where he studied briefly under Charles Bird King). After a six-year study tour of Europe, he returned to the United States and exhibited with success. He traveled throughout the South, primarily Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia, and although his mainstay of employment was portraiture, he produced some highly accomplished landscape and history paintings.
Provenance: purchased prior to 1956 in Richmond, Virginia, by the Patton family of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Original correspondence and photographs, an early 19th engraving of the Otis portrait of Girard, and a conservation report accompany the painting.