George Washington (The Lansdowne Portrait)
Artist: Gilbert Stuart
Medium: Oil on canvas
Citation: George Washington (The Lansdowne Portrait), 1796. Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828).Oil on canvas, 97 1/2 x 62 1/2 inches (247.6 x 158.7 cm.). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Rights Holder: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Engage! Theme: American Dreams
In his life-size, full-length image of George Washington, Irish-born American portrait painter Gilbert Stuart gave symbolic expression to the aspirations of the newborn American nation as embodied in its Revolutionary hero and first president.
The portrait is called the Lansdowne Portrait for the Marquis of Lansdowne, an English supporter of the American Revolution for whom the portrait was commissioned by grateful Americans. This representation drew on European aristocratic prototypes of state portraits in such features as Washington’s magnanimous gesture and the setting of richly elegant furniture, billowing drapery, and classical columns. Washington himself, however, is simply dressed in the generic garb of an American citizen, albeit clearly depicted as a member of the social elite.
Other details proclaim the distinctive character of the new republic: the titles of the books on the table and floor, for example, affirm its basis in institutional, procedural, and legal foundations rather than the will of any individual leader. In the background, storm clouds yielding to blue sky and a rainbow in the upper right evince the nation’s hopes for a glorious future after the turmoil of its birth.
Stuart’s elaborate, dignified portrait spoke to the anxieties of his countrymen that their young nation be granted due respect from established European powers, especially Great Britain.
Stuart made numerous copies of his portraits of Washington, and these in turn were widely disseminated through inexpensive reproductive prints, making Stuart’s interpretation the standard image of Washington’s visage both for his contemporaries and in posterity.
By associating himself with the nation’s most visible and important leader as the embodiment of national ideals and identity, Stuart laid claim to an important role for American artists in the new nation.
Adopted for the dollar bill, Stuart’s iconic portrayal of Washington remains universally recognizable. Stuart, who was trained in the conventions of European aristocratic portraiture, made a virtual industry of painting portraits of the new nation’s most revered leader.
The symbolic language of the Lansdowne portrait now seems foreign, yet Americans still invest likenesses of individual leaders and heroes with their dreams for their nation’s future.
What kind of future do you think the artist was suggesting for the nation as led by this man? What do the setting—the furnishings, the sky beyond, and the architectural space he occupies—his pose, and his dress suggest?
Does this vision for America appeal to you? Why or why not?
The image of Washington relies on conventions of European portraiture well known to viewers in the late eighteenth century—especially the pose of the figure and setting of the portrait. Compare and contrast this portrait of Washington with Shepard Fairey’s HOPE portrait of Barack Obama, which is familiar to and understood by viewers today.
Based on the images themselves, do you think these two presidents have similar hopes for America? If President Washington were replaced in this image by President Obama, would the message change? Why?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
American presidents set forth goals and dreams for the nation that often include innovations or new directions. For example, both George Washington and Barack Obama represent “firsts” in American politics—Washington was the first president and Obama is the first African American president—and we are reminded of these facts when we see images of them. Similarly, in Robert Rauschenberg’s collage, President John F. Kennedy is associated with space travel and the first man on the moon. What innovations or “firsts” would you like to see for this country?
What other ways can you think of to show leaders and the values they represent? Do you have pictures of heroes and leaders in your home/school/community? Which ones inspire you and why?