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  • Title: George Washington
  • Creator: Gilbert Stuart
  • Creator Lifespan: 1755 - 1828
  • Creator Nationality: American
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Date Created: 1797
  • Provenance: Probably commissioned by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney for the official American residence, Paris, 1796 (paid for in 1797, but never received); possibly Gardiner Baker, New York, by February 1798; Thomas Long
  • Essay: On the afternoon of August 24, 1814, Dolley Madison received word at the White House from her husband the President that the British were about to march on Washington.  He urged her to leave quickly.  The British troops set fire to the Capitol Building that evening, then a naval contingent moved on to the White House.  While the naval officers ate the dinner that had been laid out for the Madisons, the sailors explored the house.  After piling up the furnishings, they set them ablaze.  The President’s House was reduced to a shell, its contents consumed by the fire.But Mrs. Madison had been determined that, in addition to official papers, the full-length portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart must be kept from British hands.  There was no time to unscrew it from the wall, so the frame was broken and the canvas on its stretcher carried from the house into the safety of the countryside.  Not until 1817 was it returned to the rebuilt White House.1Although others had painted George Washington as military hero, it remained for Gilbert Stuart to create the authoritative image of the first President.  No other portrait so conveys the unyeilding resolve and severe dignity that made him the embodiment of the young Republic.  Washington grasps a sheathed sword, emblematic of his military past and his present position as Commander in Chief.  His civilian clothes remind us that after the peace was achieved in 1783 and the army disbanded, he had resigned his commission.  This renunciation of power was so novel that it astonished Europeans as well as his own countrymen.  A folio volume of the Constitution and Laws of the United States leans against (symbolically, supports), the table leg whose design joins elements of the fasces—the bound rods that symbolized authority and justice in the Roman republic—and the American eagle. Next to the Constitution is a history of the American Revolution.  We know from another version of the portrait that the title of the book next to that one is Washington’s General Orders, also recalling his military career.  Likewise, the two books on the table are The Federalist and The Journal of Congress.  These remind us of his steadfast support of the federal union and its Constitution.The President’s right arm is extended in an ancient Roman oratorical gesture. Recently, the political and diplomatic meaning of the picture has been enlarged by the persuasive interpretation of Washington’s gesture as specifically referring to his annual message to Congress on December 8, 1795, in which he urged ratification of the crucial Jay Treaty with Great Britain that attempted to address unresolved trade and other issues.2Garry Wills, in Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, has deftly summarized most of the other symbolic elements in this painting: The regalia of office are here—the column of order, the drapes of court, the seat of authority, the opening onto vistas of power.  Yet Washington’s chair gives the literal basis of his authority—thirteen stars for the states, woven together with the binding yet bending ribbons of federal connection.  The rainbow of the new political covenant circles that chair, not the holder of it.3Stuart’s portrait derives from the grand manner style of court painting in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries; the artist borrowed freely from an engraving of a late 17th-century French portrait in composing this painting.4  But by introducing different objects and symbols and by substituting an attitude of plain speaking for one of aristocratic hauteur, Stuart changed the meaning of the borrowed forms.The portrait has been criticized for lacking animation and for the impassivity of the President’s face.  Some have attributed this to Washington’s well-known aversion to having his portrait made, or to the new dentures that disfigured his mouth.  But Washington’s expression, though remote, is not the remoteness of boredom, nor of injured vanity, but of the controlled temperament Stuart himself described:  “All his features were indicative of the strongest passions; yet like Socrates his judgment and self-command made him appear a man of different cast in the eyes of the world.”5Washington never posed for the standing figure.  This was in accordance with standard portrait practice:  The sitter posed for the head only, with perhaps some quickly drawn notations of the torso and the extremities, while the body was painted from a surrogate model or even invented.  The White House portrait is probably the last of four nearly identical versions painted by Stuart, though there is no unanimity on the order in which the portraits were created.6  Since one of the four was painted as a gift to the Englishman Lord Lansdowne, all four are commonly referred to as being of the “Lansdowne type.” the head derives from a sitting in April 1796, requested specifically for use in painting the first full-length portrait.This is the probable history of the White House portrait: The newly appointed minister to France, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, had arrived in Philadelphia in September 1796 to receive credentials before his departure.  While having his own likeness painted by Stuart, he must have seen in the artist’s studio three full-length portraits of Washington in various stages of completion (for none had yet been delivered)—and decided to order yet another replica to be sent to France for the official American residence in Paris.  Completed in July 1797, it was purchased by the U. S. government for the sum of $500. 7  But Pinckney’s credentials were not accepted in France.  He returned home early in 1798, and the painting of Washington was not delivered.Instead, as extraordinary as it seems, Stuart must have sold the Pinckney replica a second time.  In early 1798 Gardiner Baker, the owner of a popular public museum at Broad and Pearl Streets in New York, advertised that a “full-length of General Washington . . . by Mr. G. Stewart” would be on view for a month before beginning a national tour.  It can only have been the Pinckney picture, since the others had been delivered to their owners.  Perhaps Stuart intended to paint another replica for Pinckney, while collecting an additional fee.  (This would not have been out of character for the unreliable and habitually improvident Stuart.)8  There is evidence to support this conclusion.  Upon Baker’s unexpected death the portrait of Washington went to a creditor named Laing, who offered it for sale to the U. S. government.9  A purchase order dated July 5, 1800, and signed by General Henry (Light-Horse Harry) Lee, then a member of Congress, directs payment of $800 “To one portrait full length of the late Genl. Washington by Stewart with frame bought from Thos. Lang.”10Before the payment was made, William Winstanley, an English painter recently settled in New York, had apparently been engaged to see to the delivery of Baker’s painting.11  Arriving in Washington on June 24, 1800, he was a guest at the home of Dr. William Thornton, the architect of the Capitol Building, and Mrs. Thornton.  The latter’s diary records that boxes of Winstanley’s paintings, including “an original likeness of Genl Washington by Stewart,” arrived with his luggage on July 5, the same day as that of the purchase order issued by Lee.  When the Thorntons went together to view the full-length portrait at the Executive Office (in the Treasury Department) in September they did not “think it a good likeness.”12  Nonetheless, by November 1 the portrait had been installed in the still unfinished White House.13Pinckney, meanwhile, had not forgotten the portrait.  A letter of December 13, 1804, reported that Pinckney “has repeatedly written to Stuart on the subject, but cannot even get an answer.”14  These letters had obviously made Stuart wary of acknowledging paternity of the White House portrait.  When the artist had visited Washington in 1802, Mrs. Thornton had written to Dolley Madison: “We have been gratified by seeing the celebrated Stewart . . . he denied most pointedly having painted the picture in the President’s House, and says he told Gen. Lee that he did not paint it . . .”15  Stuart later compounded the deception.  He told William Dunlap, whose biography of him would appear in the writer’s history of American art in 1834, that Winstanley had substituted a copy of his own for Stuart’s original.16 Clearly Stuart disowned the painting to cover his duplicity; just as clearly it is his. Stuart’s American icon has reigned in the White House throughout its history, a symbol of the Presidency and the continuity of democratic government. NOTES 1. William Seale, President’s House, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.:  White House Historical Assn., 1986), 1:132–36. 2. See Dorinda Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 67; and Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, Gilbert Stuart (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 172–73. 3. Garry Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1984), 171. 4. The source is an 18th-century engraving by Pierre Imbert Drevet of a late 17th-century portrait of Bishop Jacques Benigne Bossuet (1627–1704), orator and theologian, by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659–1743).  It is reproduced by Charles Merrill Mount, Gilbert Stuart: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1964), between pages 128 and 129. 5. Quoted both in James Thomas Flexner, Gilbert Stuart:  A Great Life in Brief (New York: Knopf, 1955), 127, and in Richard McLanathan, Gilbert Stuart (New York: Abrams, 1986), 81–82.  Washington had been fitted with a new set of false teeth shortly before the sitting from which this head derives, and they altered the shape of his mouth, but that is not an adequate explanation of his demeanor. 6. Stuart first painted a bust-length portrait showing the right side of Washington’s face (the Vaughan portrait, after its first owner) in 1795.  Then, through the intervention of Mrs. William Bingham, wife of the Philadelphia financier and United States senator, he painted another portrait.  This time he showed the left side of the face (the Athenaeum portrait, since it was purchased by the Boston Athenaeum after Stuart’s death).  The second head was probably in preparation for a half-length portrait commissioned by Senator Bingham.  The senator, however, decided to order a full-length portrait instead.  This is the version, signed and dated 1796, that was willed by Bingham to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where it remains.  Pleased with the portrait, Bingham ordered a replica for his acquaintance Lord Lansdowne, who admired Washington.  This painting, now owned by Lord Rosebery, has been on extended loan to the National Portrait Gallery since 1968.    At about the same time William Kerin Constable, a New York merchant in the China trade, saw the original Bingham commission in progress in Stuart’s studio and ordered a copy to be painted simultaneously so that it would be equally an “original.”  This version is now in the Brooklyn Museum.  The two Bingham commissions are clearly superior to the Constable replica.  A lengthy conservation report on the White House replica prepared by Marion B. Mecklenburg and Justine S. Wimsatt declares forcefully: “With respect to all four paintings, we feel that their palettes and techniques are identical, but that the major variations arise from their execution, specifically the degree to which the artist completed the paintings.  These variations do not suggest the work of different artists, but define one artist’s degrees of effort.  We feel that all four versions were painted in their entirety by a single hand.”  See Marion B. Mecklenburg and Justine S. Wimsatt, “The Full Length Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart—Conservation Treatment Report and Commentary,” 1978, Office of the Curator, the White House. 7. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering confirmed this in a letter to Pinckney (July 22, 1797), adding that “the picture remains with [Stuart] . . . subject to your orders.” In Mount, Gilbert Stuart, 216. 8. One infamous proof is the 16-year “delay” in the delivery of a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, already paid for, while Stuart made replicas from it.  Fiske Kimball, “The Life Portraits of Jefferson and Their Replicas,” Proceedings of The American Philosophical Society 88 (Philadelphia, 1944), 512–23. 9. Recent research shows that Gardiner Baker ordered the replica from Stuart (Barratt and Miles, Ibid., 178–83).  The Pinckney replica, perhaps still unfinished, would then have been completed by an assistant and resold to Baker, who died suddenly in Boston at the end of Sept. 1798.  According to William Dunlap, “Mr. Baker in the course of business became the debtor of Mr. Wm. Laing [the Thos. Lang of the purchase order], who, in the process of time, received the . . . picture in payment.  Mr. Laing being in the metropolis [Washington, D. C.] when the president’s house was being furnished, suggested the appropriateness of such a picture as he possessed, for such a place, and eventually sold the portrait to the committee who directed the business.”  (See William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States [1834; reprint, New York: Dover, 1965], 202.) 10. The 1878 hand copy in the Office of the Curator, the White House, reads “Long,” but the original in the Treasury Department (now unlocated) was read as “Lang” and cited in Elizabeth B. Johnston, Original Portraits of Washington (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1882), 88.  “Lang” for “Laing” is not surprising given the vagaries of 19th-century spelling.  “William” for “Thomas” is probably due to the fact that Dunlap was writing decades afterward. 11. Dunlap, A History, 202.  Winstanley had already made a number of copies of Stuart’s portraits of Washington and had sold several landscapes to the President in 1793–94.  Dunlap recounts the tale as told to him by Stuart. 12. “Diary of Mrs. William Thornton” [1800], Records of the Columbia Historical Society 10 (Washington, D. C., 1907):160–63, 191. 13. Seale, President’s House, 1:80.14. Quoted both in Mount, Gilbert Stuart, 263, and in Lawrence Park, Gilbert Stuart: An Illustrated Descriptive List of His Works, 4 vols. (New York: W. E. Rudge, 1926), 2:880. 15. Original letter in the Library of the University of Virginia, Manuscript Division; quoted in Ethel Stephens Arnett, Mrs. James Madison, The Incomparable Dolley (Greensboro, N. C.: Piedmont Press, 1972), 473 n. 47. 16. Dunlap, A History, 199–202. “This cheat was not discovered until after Stuart removed to the city of Washington, when he at a glance, saw that the picture was not from his pencil and disclaimed it”. Essay by William Kloss, Art in the White House, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 2008), 66-69, 291-292.  Copyright © 2008 by White House Historical Association.
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil on canvas

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