Portraits of George Washington
Gilbert Stuart, 1796, oil paint, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Thomas Sully, 1820, oil paint, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN
Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785-1792, Carrara marble, Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, VA
Hiram Power, c. 1853, marble, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN
It is 2021; the United States has just inaugurated its 45th president (46 presidencies! Another story, another time!).
On this national holiday to honor all presidents, past and present, one will always stand out above the rest because he was the FIRST: George Washington. He was president during the late 1700s, before the invention of the camera and before modern social media for documentation. It was a time when quality painted portraits were highly regarded and absolutely necessary. I compare early American portrait painters to the European court painters who were commissioned by royalty to record important events and people throughout history.
Gilbert Stuart stands out as close as possible to a “court painter” of Who’s Who in America during its early days. He was swamped with commissions and could not meet the demand for them, so other painters made copies of Stuart’s portraits for government buildings and historical societies because Stuart could not do it all alone. These included many of George Washington; and many were life-size. Thomas Sully was one of the artists who copied Stuart’s work, adding unique touches to the portraits making them very much his own.
During this time, there was a resurgence of popularity of classical Greek and Roman art. Sculptors, both American and European, created Neo-classic portraits in marble and other stone. Their work echoed the influence of the Roman Republic on our newly formed United States form of government. The symbolism of this Roman/classical connection was utilized by artists in both portraiture and sculpture.
I’ve selected four portraits of George Washington that I feel represent the man, the artistic period, along with four famous artists. Two are life-size oil paintings and two are marble sculptures–and two are at home in our own Mia in Minneapolis, MN. I love including them in my Mia tours! Fortunately, they typically stand side-by-side at the museum.
- oil on canvas
- 97.5″ x 62.5″
- National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
- Known as the Lansdowne Portrait, it is an iconic life-size portrait of 64 year old, President George Washington, during his final year in office. A gift to former British Prime Minister William Petty, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, it spent more than 170 years in England.
Stuart painted three copies of the Lansdowne, and five portraits that were closely related to it. It has been copied by numerous other artists. His most famous copy has hung in the East Room of the White House since 1800.
In 2001, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. purchased the original portrait for $20,000,000 to preclude its possible sale at auction.
A few years ago, the Mia had the honor of exhibiting side-by-side the portraits by Stuart and Thomas Sully (see below). It was fun to look at them together and note the similarities and differences of the two paintings. Both are life-size, both have the same pose and include many of the same symbolic objects. But each reflects the unique style and personality of each of the artists, Stuart and Sully.
In both paintings, one of the first things first noticed is Washington’s unusually clinched facial expression; credit given to Washington’s famous ill-fitting false teeth. (Poor guy!) A more natural expression can be seen on the marble sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon (see below).
Both paintings are full American as well as ancient Roman symbols of the Roman Republic as seen in the Doric columns behind him. Washington is dressed in a plain, simple, black velvet suit, his outstretched hand is oratorical in manner. His sword is a dress sword symbolizing a democratic form of government vs. a battle sword of a monarchy or military dictatorship. The President’s large black hat is behind these on the table.
The table in both paintings is packed with symbolism in, on and around it. Its leg is carved as a bundle of bound wooden rods (fasces) that symbolize imperial power and authority in ancient Rome. Books on and under the table symbolize Washington’s leadership as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the president of the Constitutional Convention. On the table, a pen and paper symbolize the rule of law and a silver inkwell emblazoned with Washington’s coat of arms alludes to his signing of the significant Jay Treaty. A white quill rests upon silver dogs, ancient symbols of loyalty.
In Stuart’s portrait, the red, white and blue colors of the American flag are seen in the medallion at the top of the chair. Out the window, storm clouds appear on the left, a rainbow on the right; this signifies the American Revolutionary War which would hopefully give way to peace and prosperity of the new United States after the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
- c. 1820
- Oil on canvas
- 94″ H x 60″ W
- Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN (Mia) Gallery 332.
As noted, Sully made many copies of Stuart’s portraits of President Washington.
This painting is a copy of one of Gilbert Stuart’s best-known portraits of George Washington, finished in 1800, and formerly owned by the New York Public Library before coming to Minneapolis. As noted above, it is filled with both American and Roman classical symbolism!
This grandiose portrait at the Mia is a highlight of any tour of American art; if for no other reason that its shear size: 5’wide and nearly 8′ tall! That alone makes an impact on the viewer!
- Carrara marble (note: Carrara marble was where Michelangelo got the marble for his sculptures)
- Virginia State Capitol rotunda, Richmond, Virginia (original; copies have been made and may be seen elsewhere)
- Owned by Commonwealth of Virginia.
Houdon is a French sculptor from the late 18th century. Based on a life mask and other measurements of George Washington taken by Houdon, it is considered one of the most accurate depictions of the president. And, as noted in the Stuart portrait, the president was having a much better day with his dentures!
While I’ve never seen this original in person, the copies I’ve viewed are also impressive!
- c. 1853
- Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) Minneapolis, MN Gallery 332
I love showing this sculpture to my Mia groups! It is so “non-Washingtonian!” What’s with the Ancient Roman toga vs. Early Americana attire?
Hiram Powers was one of the first great American sculptors. Inspired by Houdon (see above), this distinguished bust of President George Washington was created in the 1850s, after his death. Neo-classical styles were popular at this time, and Powers takes it to a new level here. Draped in a toga, we see a resolute Washington with the appearance of a noble sage, a hero from ancient Greece or Rome–not colonial America.
This sculpture first came to Minneapolis, MN in 1929 when it was installed in the Foshay Tower, an Obelisk in downtown Minneapolis, modeled after the Washington Monument in D.C. (Prior to that, it lived with the Drexel family in Philadelphia.)