Historical Portraits Picture Archive

George Washington (1732 - 1799) President of the United States 1790c.

Studio of Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)

George Washington (1732 - 1799) President of the United States, Studio of Gilbert Stuart
Zoom
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
 
Provenance:
Collection of Walter P Chrysler Jr.; The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk VA L.27.74.6
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The Athenaeum portrait of the President, from which this version directly derives, is the most famous image of Washington, with which the painter was most satisfied. It has served since its execution as a direct model for commissioned copies to meet the enormous demand for Washington's portrait, and has since that time been reproduced innumerably - most notably serving as the source of the President's likeness as used on the one dollar bill - to the extant that it is beyond dispute the most familiar portrait in America, truly a secular icon.

It was painted in the penultimate year of Washington's second term as President, and in this last portrait Stuart has distilled the particular strengths that made Washington an able general and a statesman of particular tact and inspiration. The Athenaeum image occupies an unique position in the iconography of political portraiture. It is by far the best and most original solution to depicting a commoner-statesman as Head of Government and State without recourse to the hubristic idiom of royal portraiture. The Athenaeum portrait is a perfect image of Cincinnatus, the farmer-soldier who has taken up arms and office only at the will of his country, and who yearned, like Washington, to retire again, as soon as possible, into private life.

Gilbert Stuart's original portrait was the result of his third life sitting with the President. Martha Washington had persuaded her husband that they should sit again in 1796 to Gilbert Stuart, upon the condition that the finished portraits were to belong to her. Stuart recognised that he was unlikely to paint another likeness so exactly describing the sitter's character, and retained both canvasses - completed only as to the faces of the subjects - and employed them as his model for further, lucrative reproduction. This unfinished portrait retains, therefore, a sense of supreme authority as the truest likeness of Washington.

Stuart''s estimation of the portrait was so high, indeed, that he counted it the best painted representation of the President, explaining ''in the most emphatic manner: Houdon''s bust [1783] came first and my head of him next. When I painted him he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which explains the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face. Houdon's bust does not suffer from this defect. I wanted him as he looked at that time.''1

1. Stuart, Jane. The Stuart Portraits of Washington, Scribner''s Monthly 12, no.3 (July 1876): p.370. published Making of America ©Cornell University online
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