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       America's Most Famous Painting

George Washington

(The Athenaeum Portrait)
By Gilbert Stuart, 1796
Oil on canvas, 48 by 37 inches.

his is the most famous of all American paintings. At one time it hung—as a framed reproduction—in every school classroom in America. It hung above every judge's chair in every courtroom. This is the painting that shaped the new nation of America. As a people, we saw in this face those elements that we wanted to characterize our nation. Those calm steady eyes have looked down upon millions of American schoolchildren and told them to shape up, to get with the program, and that America was counting on them. What we saw in this picture is what we wanted our nation to be—calm, steady, brave and resolute—and to a certain degree that has proven to be true.

This is the most famous American picture, and there to the right is the man who painted it. It was painted in Philadelphia on the afternoon of April 12, 1796, beginning at 1:30 and concluding at 3:00 p.m.

The portrait was commissioned by Martha Washington—wife of the first president—and our first First Lady. Mrs. Washington asked Gilbert Stuart to create two portraits - one of her husband and one of herself - to hang in Mount Vernon. She arranged for the sitting. Her husband was to give Stuart one sitting in Philadelphia of ninety minutes duration, and that is what he got.

The sitting took place as scheduled. The artist worked with extraordinary concentration and matchless skill. The immortal image—just as you see it here - took form on the artist's canvas.

Martha Washington never got her two paintings. They were commissioned in 1796. Three years later, when George Washington died, the paintings had not been delivered. In 1802, when Mrs. Washington died, she had still not received her paintings. By 1828, when the artist died, the two paintings were still to be found in his studio in Philadelphia.

The Washingtons never got their portraits, but the world got seventy-five replicas—seventy-five copies by Gilbert Stuart's own hand—of the original likeness.

There is a famous story —- it may be apocryphal—that has the Washingtons calling at Stuart's studio. Mrs. Washington expressed her frustration and eagerness to have the two portraits. Returning to the carriage, George Washington asked his wife to wait for him, and he returned alone to the artist's studio. Demanding to know what was going on and the reason for the long delay, Stuart confessed that he was turning out copy after copy of the original painting. Sensing at once the beneficial effect of the wide circulation of this image throughout the new nation, Washington smiled at the nervous artist, and granted him permission to continue.

Looking back across history, it was indeed well that the energetic artist was allowed to produce so many replicas of this iconic and influential picture, and to distribute them widely. It was an era when there was no color reproduction - no way to mechanically reproduce the painting so that people could see what the father of their country looked like.

Thus working from the original ninety-minute likeness, Stuart generated not only seventy-five replicas of the head-and-shoulders, but also four very famous full-length state portraits of the First President. The first of these was to fulfill a commission from a wealthy Philadelphia businessman, who wished a full-figure likeness of Washington to present as a gift to Lord Lansdowne, an English aristocrat and friend of the infant nation. The second full-length painting now hangs in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The third is now in the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. The fourth hangs in a place of honor in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

The canvas above, created so hurriedly but so surely by a master painter, never made it to Mount Vernon, but hangs today - along with its companion image of Martha Washington —- in the Boston Athenaeum. It is America's most famous painting, and who can fully estimate the degree to which it helped to shape the greatest nation the world has ever known.

Gilbert Stuart
By Charles Willson Peale
and Rembrandt Peale

Martha Washington
(The Athenaeum Portrait)

By Gilbert Stuart, 1796

George Washington
(The Lansdowne Portrait)

By Gilbert Stuart, 1796


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