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Monday, February 22, 2016

George Washington Portraits

George Washington Lansdowne Portrait, 1796, Gilbert Stuart.
The White House version has a spelling error on one of the books.
This is not about George Washington, whose birthday it is today. Perhaps no man in the history of this country, short of Jesus Christ himself, has had more written about him. As our first president, you don't need me to go on about his service to his country during the Revolutionary War, as President, or his impressive legacy. No, this is about those who painted George Washington; who were, perhaps, more than anyone else, responsible for the aura of historic presidential perfection--the leader of a brand new experiment in democracy that had never before been tried, but has since become a model for free world countries on every continent (yes, even Antarctica).

George Washington owns the one dollar-bill, ever since 1869. It has had its ups and downs since that time. Traditionally said to be based on the Athenaeum (unfinished) Portrait of Washington (above-right), the question that keeps arising in my mind is, why was the image reversed during the engraving process? Does the printing process alone account for the reversal?
George Washington, The Athenaeum
Portrait, 1796, Gilbert Stuart,
National Portrait Gallery
When you talk about those artists, who have literally built their reputations and careers around having painted George Washington, the first name to float to the top is that of Gilbert Stuart. Over the course of his lifetime Stuart painted over a thousand individuals, including the first six Presidents of the United States. Stuart's Landsdowne Portrait of George Washing-ton (top), from 1796, hangs both in the East Room of the White House, in the National Portrait Galley in Washington, as well as the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum in Philadelphia. He painted the original then made three copies. If that sounds excessive, Stuart made about (no one knows for sure the exact number) 130 copies of what's come to be known as the Athenaeum Portrait of George Washington (left), which he sold for a hundred dollars each--about $666 in today's money.

Two of the many Gilbert Stuart copies of the Athenaeum portrait, the one
on the right having been finished shortly before Stuart's death in 1828.
George Washington,
1799, Rembrandt Peale
Gilbert Stuart may have been the preeminent portrait artist during the early years of American history, but he was far from being the only one who painted Washington for fun and profit. The Charles Willson Peale family in Philadelphia had a whole army of second generation painters, (mostly painting mini-atures). The patriarch, Charles Willson Peale had painted Washington two or three times, before and during the Revolution (below). His son, Rembrandt Peale, painted Washing-ton about the time of his death in 1799, rend-ering by far the best family versions. Notice to poor proportions of the 1780s portrait. The head in considerably too small for the body. In trying to make Washington appear heroic, the elder Peale succeeded only in making himself look inept. The artist was mostly self-taught.

The figure on the left, with its red uniform, represents a young Washington fighting for the British during the French and Indian Wars. The figure on the right is General Washington during the American Revolution. The anatomical proportions are grossly inaccurate.
George Washington Taking the
Salute at Trenton, 1856, John Faed
Two other portrait artists were much more successful than Peale at depicting Washington in his prime, during the Revolutionary War period. The 1856 painting by John Faed (right) depicts George Washington, mounted on horseback, Taking the Salute at Trenton. Though painted more than half a century after Washington's death, it is by far the best pre-presidential representation of Washington in a military role. American artists and their art made considerable improvements in that half-century. Sometime during Washington's two terms in office, 1789-1796, Edward Savage painted a perfectly charming family portrait of Washington, his wife, Martha, her son, Parke Custis, and daughter, Eleanor Parke Custis. The shadowy figure in the upper-right corner is apparently a family servant, either William Lee or Christopher Sheels.

George Washington and family, 1789-96, Edward Savage
Though Gilbert Stuart may be most famous for his unfinished portrait of Washington, he also painted an unfinished portrait of our first president's First Lady (though the titled hadn't been thought of yet). I've taken the liberty of merging the two, hoping Mr. Stuart will forgive my impertinence in creating a whole (though still unfinished) new addition to his life's work.

My version of Gilbert Stuart's unfinished portraits of Martha and George.
Washington by Jean
Antoine Houdon
During the past century, portraits of our first president have been as popular as during the days of Peale and Stuart. Washington's home at Mount Vernon, just down the Potomac from the capital city which bears his name, recently added an interactive museum. As part of that undertaking is a surprisingly lifelike wax figure of a very young, nineteen-year-old surveyor trekking along the western Virginia lands bordering the Ohio River around 1750 (below-center). The painting to the left depicts Washington offering the viewer a quill pen with which to sign the then brand new American Constitution. The portrait of Washington (below-right) is by the a young Russian portrait artist named Igor Babailov, com-missioned by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, for their new exhibits. Babailov's portrait of Washington (below, right) may be the first instance where a painted portrait was done principally from a marble sculpture (right). At least the artist didn't have to struggle with a moving model.

Babailov's portrait is based on a life mask of Washington's face and careful reference to the standing sculptural figure of Washington made during the presidents lifetime by the French Sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon, located in Richmond, Virginia.
Undoubtedly the most popular recent portrait of Washington dates from 1975, the work of Arnold Friberg titled Prayer at Valley Forge (below). So familiar was I with the iconic image that it came as a surprise when I realized it was little more than forty years old.

Friberg's Washington has become an iconic image in little more than forty years.
George and Martha Washington both graced the back
(bottom half) of this very early dollar bill (silver certificate).
It's probably worth a bit more than a dollar now.


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