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10.3: George Washington Portraits (18th Century)

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  • Iconic American portraits were significant in creating the perception of the New World. George Washington was the first American president and the only president unanimously elected to office. Photography did not exist yet, so an artist was hired to paint the representatives of the new America. Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), an American painter, gained lasting fame for painting America's first president. The painting George Washington, also known as The Athenaeum (10.11), is a 1796 unfinished painting; however, it was used as the current image of George Washington on the one-dollar bill. This portrait was never finished, but Stuart used it to create about seventy-five other portraits, using this one as the model. Stuart eventually created about one hundred paintings of Washington based on three originals.

    Portrait of George Washington  
(The Athenaeum Portrait)
    10.11 Portrait of George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait)

    Stuart also painted the 64-year-old Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington (10.12) during Washington's last year of his presidency, hanging today in the East Room of the White House. First Lady Dolly Madison is credited with rescuing the painting during the War of 1812. During the war, the British set the White House on fire, and Madison directed workers to take the portrait out of the frame and move it to a safe place.

    George Washington
    10.12 George Washington

    Another American painter, Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), created two paintings portraying George Washington, one in a battle (10.13) and one standing (10.14). These two portraits of a younger Washington mirror a large, tall man (for the time), capable of commanding an army and a new nation. The elegant military dress contrasts with the darkening gloomy sky constructing Washington as a formable figure.

    10.13 George Washington at the Battle of Princeton
    10.13 George Washington at the Battle of Princeton
    George Washington
    10.14 George Washington

    Peale was more than a portrait artist, he was a naturalist, inventor, and collector of artifacts from science, founding the first American museum to commemorate the newest democracy since Ancient Greece. The museum contained a full mastodon skeleton and was the earliest to adopt the Linnaean taxonomy, biological classification of organisms established by Carl Linnaeus. The museum was the first building of curiosities, an institution, and a model continually evolving into the present-day natural science museums.

    The Declaration of Independence (10.15) by John Trumbull (1756-1843) is one of the most iconic American paintings of all time. Located historic Independence Hall, Philadelphia, the central theme of the painting is the actual signing of the new colonies Declaration of Independence from Britain. Trumbull was commissioned to paint four Revolutionary-era historical scenes by the United States Congress. Forty-seven of the nation's founders are in attendance to witness the men signing the initial draft of the decree as it lay on the desk. An image from the painting is used today on the back of the two-dollar bill.

    Declaration of Independence
    10.15 Declaration of Independence

    Capturing the pivotal battle of Trenton, Trumbull painted General George Washington at Trenton (10.16) on a full-size canvas in a yellow and black uniform with his horse and boats of soldiers against the darkening skies of the river. Washington seems contemplative as he seems to visualize his move against the rapidly advancing enemy before he mounts the agitated horse. Both Peale's and Trumbull's renditions of Washington give him the appearance of someone larger than life, ready to lead.

    General George Washington at Trenton
    10.16 General George Washington at Trenton