Gilbert Stuart Paints George Washington

Painted portrait of George Washington with hand outstretched
George Washington ("Lansdowne" portrait) / Gilbert Stuart / 1796 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation

This blogpost originally appeared February 19, 2016

The National Portrait Gallery’s collections feature Gilbert Stuart’s two life portraits of George Washington and his only portrait of Martha Washington. Stuart painted these in Philadelphia in 1796, three years after returning to the United States from Europe. He was already widely recognized for his lifelike representations, which he created with brushstrokes that rarely blend the colors, giving his portraits a recently completed quality. The success of his first images of Washington, painted in 1795, led to two important commissions. First, Martha Washington commissioned a pair of portraits of herself and the president, which she planned to display at Mount Vernon. Stuart asked Washington’s permission to keep the unfinished portrait of George Washington so that he could copy it. The result was more than seventy-five replicas depicting the president in the now-familiar waist-length pose. This image is also duplicated in reverse on the one-dollar bill. The original, unfinished portraits are known as the “Athenaeum” images because the Boston Athenaeum library acquired them after Stuart’s death in 1828. 

Stuart’s second commission was for the life-size, full-length portrait of George Washington now known as the “Lansdowne” portrait. American senator William Bingham paid Stuart to paint the portrait as a gift for English statesman William Petty, first Marquis of Lansdowne, hence its modern title. Lansdowne, as Lord Shelburne, had been prime minister during the initial negotiations for the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution in 1783. He and Bingham shared a belief in the importance of opening up commercial relations between England and the United States after the end of the war. The Lansdowne portrait, undoubtedly Stuart’s grandest achievement, depicts Washington as he appeared as president on public occasions: in a black velvet suit, a white shirt with lace ruffles, black stockings and shoes, and wearing a dress sword. The portrait refers to his past and present leadership. The large books under the table—titled General Orders, American Revolution, and Constitution & Laws of the United States—refer to Washington’s roles as commander of the American army and as president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The books on the table are titled Federalist—referring to the Federalist Papers that John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1787–88—and the Journal of Congress, which, beginning in 1789, recorded the everyday actions and votes of Congress. The ornate chair and table, the columns, and the curtain, while fictional, represent the hall of Congress. The sky in the background has dark clouds to the left and a rainbow on the right. An account in the New York newspaper Time Piece on February 7, 1798, explained: “A full-length of General Washington (large as life) represented in the position of addressing Congress. . . . He is surrounded with allegorical emblems of his public life in service to his country, which are highly illustrative of the great and tremendous storms which have frequently prevailed. These storms have abated and the appearance of the rainbow is introduced in the background as a sign.”

Washington’s oratorical pose refers to his address to Congress on December 8, 1795, which included his support of the recently signed second treaty with England, known today as the Jay Treaty because its chief negotiator was John Jay. The paper, pen, and inkwell on the table suggest the treaty, signed in London on November 19, 1794, and ratified by the United States Senate on June 24, 1795. William Bingham was a leader in the Senate’s ratification of the treaty, which went into effect on February 29, 1796. The House of Representatives resisted appropriating the funds needed to carry out its provisions, and it was during this tense legislative process that Bingham commissioned Stuart to paint the full-length portrait. The completed painting was shipped in November 1796 to London, where it was placed on view at Lansdowne House. Its success as a presidential image was immediate. As the only full-length portrait that depicts Washington as president rather than as a general, the image was much admired by political supporters, who commissioned versions for themselves. In 1800, after Washington’s death, one version was purchased with United States Treasury funds and placed on display at the White House. This was the portrait that Dolley Madison rescued in 1814, when, during the War of 1812, the British army attacked Washington and burned both the President’s House and the United States Capitol. That portrait was returned to the White House in 1817 and can be seen today on view in the East Room.