George Washington
George Washington, A National Treasure
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Experience... is the best rule to walk by. --George Washington to John Parke Curtis, West Point, August 24, 1779

Family Guide
George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, oil on canvas, 1796

George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, oil on canvas, 1796
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

This Family Guide gives families questions and ideas to help spark a child's interest in learning about portraits and their subjects. Below are sample questions, activities, and information to help guide your experience with the painting. The Family Guide is available at the exhibit.

Looking at portraits is one way to learn about important people from the past. Before learning about the man in the portrait, spend a few minutes looking at the painting. Answering the questions below may help you look more closely at the portrait.

Who is the man in the portrait?

Discuss who you think the man in the portrait might be.

Have you seen other images of this man before?

If yes, which ones?

Does this image portray a man at the beginning of his career or near the end of his career?

What part(s) of the portrait did you look at to determine your answer?

Is this a man who looks comfortable with what he is doing? Explain.

Is this a man who has accomplished a great deal? What objects do you see that represent his accomplishments?

Who is the man in the portrait?

Did you guess correctly that the man in the portrait is George Washington?

With one of the most familiar faces in American history, George Washington is easy to recognize, because you have seen his portrait many times before—it’s even on the dollar bill!

From his days as the commanding general of the army in the American Revolution until long after his death in 1799, Washington has been a popular subject for artists. Even before Gilbert Stuart painted this portrait in 1796, many Americans might have recognized Washington’s face through almanacs and newspapers. His courage, heroism, and leadership were legendary. People flocked to see him wherever he traveled. Images of Washington were available to his adoring public. Some of these were good likenesses, and others were not.

Looking at the Portrait

What kinds of picture-making that did not exist during Washington’s lifetime, but exist today, would have made it easier to own an accurate image of the President?

During his lifetime, Washington sat for many painters and sculptors. He did not particularly enjoy sitting for artists, but he accepted their requests out of a sense of duty, responsibility, and an appreciation of his role in the country.

Gilbert Stuart, one of the most talented portrait painters in American history, was the artist who painted this portrait. It was paid for by Senator and Mrs. William Bingham of Philadelphia, as a gift to the Marquis of Lansdowne, a British admirer of George Washington.

Stuart understood the importance of his subject and wanted to create a portrait for future generations, one whose significance would last a long time. He thought carefully about the most meaningful way to portray Washington, the leader of the country and a symbol of the nation’s great experiment in constitutional government.

In a portrait, what part of the sitter do you think is most important to the artist? Why?

In order to help him depict Washington’s face more accurately, Stuart wanted the President to sit for him. Although tired of sitting for artists, Washington agreed. Stuart completed the rest of the painting without Washington being present. For example, he asked someone else to stand in for Washington so he could paint the body in the black suit.

Imagine that Gilbert Stuart asked you to pose for this portrait. Try to position your head, body, feet, and arms in a similar way. Stand very still. Don’t move. Stand a little longer! How does it feel? How long do you think you could hold that position?

Why do you think that Stuart did not ask Washington to pose for the portrait?

Which part of this painting captures your attention most? Why?

  • Face
  • Hands
  • Body
  • Setting of the room?

Below are a list of words, which words do you think best describe the way Washington looks in this portrait? You can add other words that you think are appropriate.

  • powerful
  • stern
  • happy
  • content
  • formal
  • old
  • stiff
  • presidential
  • tall
  • imposing
  • handsome
  • well-dressed
  • dignified
  • regal
  • tired
  • heroic
  • energetic
  • uncomfortable
  • charismatic
  • calm

Discuss what Washington is wearing.

Is this outfit appropriate for an American President? Why or why not?

What would a general wear?

What would a king wear?

Gilbert Stuart painted Washington wearing clothes typical of an eighteenth-century gentleman. The black velvet suit is a good clue that this man is a civilian President, not a king or a military ruler. As President, Washington wore black velvet on official occasions. This is the first full-length portrait painted of Washington as head of the government, wearing civilian clothes and not his military uniform.

The artist included many interesting objects important to George Washington and the new country. Most of the objects you see are symbols that represent ideas.

What does George Washington look like he is about to do?

Many people think that Washington looks like he is about to give a speech. By the time he sat for this portrait, his political career was ending. Near the end of his second term and unknown to most Americans, Washington had decided not to run for President again. Instead of giving a speech, he wrote a farewell address that was published in a Philadelphia newspaper. It was printed so that as many Americans as possible could read his message explaining his decision to retire and his hopes for the country’s future.

Imagine you are Lord Lansdowne. How would you react if you received this portrait as a gift?

Why do you think this painting of George Washington is considered a national treasure?

About George Washington

George Washington was an extraordinary person in extraordinary times. He possessed important qualities of leadership, determination, and ambition that helped him succeed throughout his life. Perhaps more than anyone else, Washington proved to be the person who could hold the country together.

Washington grew up in Virginia, the third son of a planter. Although his formal education lasted only a few years, he taught himself the skills he needed by watching others and reading books. The hard-working Washington learned planting and land surveying. He was tall – over six feet – and very strong. He loved horseback riding, fox hunting, dancing, and card playing. In 1759 he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with large landholdings and numerous slaves.

While still young, Washington began to devote more and more time to being a soldier and a politician. He commanded forces in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. With leadership, courage, and bravery, he inspired the men he commanded. More than once, he rode into the thick of battle and emerged unharmed from the enemy’s fire.

As commander in chief of the Continental army during the American Revolution, Washington faced many obstacles, including the need to form and train an army that could do battle with the might of the British empire. He also faced shortages of troops, food, and supplies. However, he continued the fight for independence, demonstrating a growing understanding of military strategy. By the war’s end in 1781, Washington was the most respected and popular man in the country and one of the best known in the world.

At the end of the war, he resigned his commission in the army and returned home to Mount Vernon. Soon he was back in public service. He was the unanimous choice for president of the Constitutional Convention, which created the Constitution and the new government. In 1789 and 1792, he was the country’s choice for President of the United States.

Washington was an effective and popular President. Under his leadership, the country remained steady and balanced. Basic systems of government were established, and Washington kept the country out of conflicts with other countries. After two terms, he decided not to seek a third term as President. He was ready to retire and to transfer the reins of power to his fellow citizens.

Washington spent the last few years of his life overseeing his land and slaves, and was visited by a steady stream of well-wishers. Six months before he died, he wrote his will. A slave owner all his adult life, Washington felt torn about the issue of slavery. Although he did not speak publicly about the need to end slavery, he expressed his opinions in private. In his will, he freed his personal servant, William Lee, immediately, and freed the other slaves when his wife, Martha, died. He was the only founding father to do so.

Washington maintained a daily routine of riding out to his farm. On one of those rides in the rain and snow, he became ill. He died on December 14, 1799, at age sixty-seven.

About the Artist

This portrait was painted by one of the most talented artists in eighteenth-century and early- nineteenth-century America, Gilbert Stuart. He was born in Rhode Island and spent many years in England and Ireland, learning to paint. By the time Stuart returned to the United States in 1793, he was an accomplished portrait painter. He was also very ambitious. Painting a portrait of George Washington from life would enhance not only his artistic reputation, which was already high, but also his wallet, which was often empty!

Stuart first met the President at one of Washington’s regularly scheduled Tuesday-afternoon social gatherings, or levees. Washington agreed to sit for him, and Stuart eventually painted three portraits of the President from life. Hoping to profit financially, Stuart produced even more copies of his portraits of Washington. The image of Washington on the dollar bill is based on what is known as Stuart’s “Athenaeum” portrait.

Demand for portraits by Stuart continued throughout his life. He painted about one thousand portraits, including those of American Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, and first ladies Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison.

Funding for this Family Guide is made as a gift to the nation through a generous contribution to the National Portrait Gallery from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.


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