Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of George Washington (1732 - 1799) 1820c.

Jane Stuart 

Portrait of George Washington (1732 - 1799), Jane Stuart
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Oil on canvas
18th Century
48 x 37 inches 122 x 94 cm
 
Provenance:
Purchased from the artist by John Church Hamilton (1792 - 1882), fourth son of General Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury; By family descent to his granddaughter Mrs Charles Swan 1916.
Exhibited:
On loan to the Chrysler Museum Norfolk, Virginia, 1970 - 2002.
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Labels verso:

George Washington painted by/ daughter of Gilbert Stuart/ purchased from her by John c. Hamilton/ owned 1916 by/ his gdaughter/ Flushing [Mrs Swan]

(on canvas) Copy of Stuart's original/ George Washington/ in the possession of/ the Boston Athenaeum,/ by his daughter/ Jane Stuart



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.

Gilbert Stuart's original portrait was the result of his third life sitting with the President. Martha Washington 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.

After its execution in 1796, the painting did not leave Stuart's studio, and efforts made after his death to acquire the painting - once by an English collector, and another on behalf of the nation - came to nothing. Eventually the portraits of Washington and Mrs Washington were bought in 1831 and presented to the Boston Athenaeum, which still owns them, jointly with the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

It is not known at what date Jane Stuart painted this replica of the Athenaeum portrait. It is most probable, necessarily, that it was executed before the date of its removal from Stuart''s studio, perhaps even before Stuart's death in 1828. Its fidelity to the original is worth remarking, as the painter has taken care to reproduce the two dark patches of background colour that in the original have been tentatively placed upon the plain priming of the left side of the canvas. These were prominent on the original painting, certainly as late as the 1920s, though subsequently they have been reduced perhaps through a concern for an apparently untidy and discordant effect. Nonetheless, they are an important element of a painting that was a work in progress, and Jane Stuart shows a careful reverence for her father''s technique and for his subject in recording every brushstroke of his chef d'oeuvre.

The admiration that Jane Stuart felt for her father, and he for Washington, is an important key to this painting. ''It is impossible for any human being,'' she relates, ''to have a more exalted admiration (and I might say love) than my father had for Washington.''1 He was ''perfectly satisfied with [the two heads], and always expressed himself to that effect in private and in public; he was in fact proud of his success.''2 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.''3

An unparalleled painting of a magnificent subject requires no alteration or improvement, and in making her copy, Jane Stuart clearly believed that the iconic power of the image would be diminished by later invention. The duplication is exact, even to creating the darker ''halo'' around the head by which in an original work the painter defines the head against the priming, before, in a second stage, laying in the background.

The portrait would equally have been of significance to John C. Hamilton, its buyer, as well as to its painter, and again there is a twofold filial piety. The portrait commemorates the Father of the Country, but must also bring resonances of Hamilton''s own father, General Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was one of Washington''s most able and charismatic officers during the Revolution and the subsequent political alliance of the two men did much to counterbalance the extreme Francophile tendencies of Thomas Jefferson, and to maintain the turbulent peace with Great Britain.

1. Stuart, Jane. The Stuart Portraits of Washington, Scribner's Monthly 12, no.3 (July 1876): p.371. published Cornell University online Making of America
2. ibid. p.370
3. ibid.
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