Gilbert Stuart George Washington painting has come to dominate the popular image of America’s first president so totally that it is virtually impossible for most Americans to see Washington in any other way. Its painter, Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), was born to a Scottish immigrant father in Rhode Island and demonstrated artistic talent early in life. By the age of fourteen, he had already painted a famous painting, Dr. Hunter’s Spaniels, under the mentorship of Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander.
He travelled to Scotland in 1771 to continue his studies with Alexander, who died a year later. Stuart’s attempts to pursue his vocation as a painter in Scotland failed, but he was able to successfully launch his career in England, where he travelled to in 1775. By 1782, Stuart had achieved broad recognition due to The Painter, his portrait of British politician William Grant. During this period, he was so successful that prices for his work were exceeded only by renowned artists Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.
Financial problems due to his inability to manage his money forced him to return to America, where he set up a studio in Germanstown, Pennsylvania in 1795. Many famous Americans of the day sat for Stuart in his studio, including presidents Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Monroe, father of the American Navy Commodore John Barry, and Revolutionary War hero General Horatio Gates. He was noted for painting directly on the canvas rather than making a preliminary sketch, which was unusual for the time.
- Order a painting reproduction of George Washington (The Gibbs-Channing-Avery Portrait) by Gilbert Stuart
A Series of Portraits
Although Stuart painted a series of portraits of Washington, the most celebrated Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington is known as the Lansdowne Portrait (c. 1796). This painting was commissioned by Senator William Bingham of Philadelphia and his wife Anne as a gift for the Marquis of Lansdowne, an early English supporter of American independence. Multiple copies of this iconic painting actually exist, due to Stuart’s practice of making duplicates to sell, and some of these are on display in the East Room of the White House, the Old State House in Connecticut and the US House Chamber. The original, however, can be found in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, which acquired it in 2001 as a gift from The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which had committed $30 million to buy the painting before it could be auctioned off.
The copy in the White House, however, has been the subject of much controversy regarding who actually painted it. Stuart himself reportedly disowned the painting in 1802 and former National Portrait Gallery director Marvin Sadik has charged that the portrait is not by Stuart. However, the late White House art curator Clement Conger has defended its authenticity, as have conservators hired by the White House to restore the painting.
In all, Gilbert Stuart would paint three portraits of Washington, who sat for the artist in 1795 and April 1796. The Athenaeum (c. 1796), the second of these, is famously featured on the one dollar bill, as well as serving as inspiration for the president’s sculpted face on Mt. Rushmore. Stuart’s portraits of Washington also served as models for the engravings on many US postage stamp issues, including the ten cent stamp of 1861 and the one cent stamp of 1954. This picture, however, would remain unfinished as Stuart ceased work on the painting after he finished Washington’s face so that he could make copies. Up to seventy of these copies were eventually sold by Stuart in his lifetime at a price of $100 each. The Athenaeum currently hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Another famous portrait of Washington by Stuart is known as the Constable-Hamilton portrait (c. 1797), since it was commissioned by New York merchant William Kevin Constable as a gift for Alexander Hamilton, who served as the president’s first Secretary of the Treasury. This picture is currently part of the collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Stuart notoriously had difficulty in breaking through Washington’s reserve, and had to exercise all his considerable talents in conversation in order to draw out the inner man. However, he was apparently successful as his portraits of Washington remain among the most popular depictions of the country’s first president. Even Washington’s grandson declared that the Lansdowne portrait was “the best likeness” of the president in his later years.
What makes the Lansdowne portrait even more intriguing are the many allegorical emblems that Stuart included in the picture, which were drawn from both American and Ancient Roman symbols. Washington is portrayed as standing in an symbolic manner, as if about to deliver an oratory, which many analysts have interpreted as the President looking towards the future or saying farewell (when the portrait was painted, Washington was about to leave office after having served two terms). He is also shown holding a ceremonial sheathed sword as a reference to Washington’s status as head of state.
In the foreground of the painting can be seen a table with an exposed leg. The leg features two carved eagles, a reference to the Great Seal of the US. However, unlike the eagles on the seal, though these have arrows in one claw, they do not have olive branches in the other. Underneath the table, there are a number of books, including Constitution and Bylaws, American Revolution and General Bylaws, which symbolize Washington’s roles as President of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and Commander-in-Chief of the American Army. On the table are an inkwell and quill, which has been interpreted as being symbolic of Washington’s role in drafting and signing many vital documents in the country’s history. Also on the table are two books, Federalist, about the Federalist Papers, and Journal of Congress, which, along with the books under the table, serve to highlight Washington’s roles in shaping American ideas and politics.
Behind Washington is an armchair whose back is decorated with a medallion with the stars and stripes, and which is draped with a laurel leaf. The laurel leaf is intended to symbolize the victory of America against the British in the War of Independence, and the medallion the thirteen original states. The background of the painting also features two open windows, through which a rainbow and dark clouds can be seen. The rainbow symbolizes the hopes of the young nation as it faced the future after independence. The dark skies, on the other hand, represent the storms America has successfully prevailed against.
One of America’s Finest Portraitists
By the end of his artistic career, Gilbert Stuart had painted more than a thousand American social and political figures. He remains recognized as one of America’s finest portraitists, and his work graces many of America’s most famous museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington’s National Gallery of Art, as well as London’s National Portrait Gallery. His house in which he was born has been turned into a museum, the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum, which features many copies of his most famous works on display and opened in 1930. He was honored with a postage stamp in 1940.
The Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington painting has also become one of the most requested art reproductions, which is available as a museum-quality lithographic or serigraphic print or as a hand-painted replica painted to order by a commissioned artist on canvas.