George Washington
George Washington, A National Treasure
The Portrait Kids Washington's Life Exhibition Calendar
Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people. -George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, Mount Vernon, Janurary 29, 1789

The Portrait
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.

George Washington stands before you in a full-length portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Here is Stuart at his best, painting a Washington for the ages, grand not as a king but as a stalwart representative of democracy. The painting, done in 1796, is known as the Lansdowne Portrait because it was a gift to the Marquis of Lansdowne, an English supporter of American independence, from Senator and Mrs. William Bingham of Pennsylvania.

Explore the portrait using three different filters: symbolic, biographic, and artistic. Each filter highlights an element in the portrait and provides unique information and a distinct interpretation. What does it symbolize? How does it relate to Washington? And, what techniques did the artist use to render it?

This filter explores symbolic meanings and interpretations of objects in the portrait. Many of the objects in the painting never really existed, but were chosen by the artist to convey specific ideas to viewers.

“He is surrounded with allegorical emblems of his public life in the service of 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.” —Advertisement for the first exhibition of the Lansdowne portrait in 1798

This filter explores historical events and biographical information about Washington the man, and the leader. Here, we see Washington in 1796, the last year of his presidency. Who is this man? What has he accomplished in his life?

“He is the best and the greatest man the world ever knew....Neither depressed by disappointment and difficulties, nor elated with a temporary success. He retreats like a General and attacks like a Hero.” —Composer Francis Hopkinson

This filter explores the history of the artist and artistic techniques used to create the painting. What techniques did Gilbert Stuart use to capture a Washington who disliked posing? Why did some people call Stuart a genius?

“Genius is always eccentrick, I think. There is no knowing how to take hold of this man, nor by what means to prevail upon him to fulfil his engagements.” —Abigail Adams, writing of Gilbert Stuart, who would make her wait 16 years for delivery of her finished portrait. John Adams said that Stuart “keeps me constantly amused by his conversation.”


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