National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
George Washington's presidency coincided with the advent of a real printmaking industry in the United States. With the demand booming for both illustration and popular prints for framing, engravers could now enjoy a steady market. Washington's growing status as a national icon after the Revolutionary War spurred the fledgling industry to supply the demand for inexpensive portraits. Various engravings show Washington as a military commander, a noble citizen-who, like the Roman Cincinnatus, gave up his power to return to his farm-a statesman, and a heroic symbol of his country. Readily accessible pictures-printed portraits, cartoons, broadsides, photographs, posters, and eventually film-have played a role in presidential politics ever since.
Interpreting the death of Washington
Americans responded to George Washington's death on December 14, 1799, with an outpouring of oratorical and pictorial tributes that encompassed various approaches to death, grief, and glorification. Enoch Gridley's engraving includes the traditional elements of fashionable neoclassical mourning art: portrait, urn, obelisk, and weeping figure of Columbia. Additional allegorical figures further exalt the "father of his country," personifying, according to a published broadside, Fame, Wisdom, Liberty, and Truth. David Edwin's Apotheosis engraving implies a religious transformation as Washington ascends from his earthly home to be welcomed by heroes on high. The more secular deathbed scene, depicting Washington's physicians taking his pulse with the aid of a stopwatch, related to published accounts of his stoic final moments. Americans could buy the same image, along with a companion mourning picture, in the form of a printed handkerchief.