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Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799)

1795-1796
Origin: America, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Unframed: 29 3/16" x 24 1/4" and Framed: 36 3/4" x 31 5/8" x 2 5/8"
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Mrs. Edward S. Harkness
Acc. No. 1950-337
A bust-to-half-length portrait showing a man turned a quarter towards the viewer's right (and showing, foremost, the proper right side of his face). His hands are not shown. He wears a white neckcloth, white ruffled shirt, and black, high-collared coat. His gray-white hair is curled on the sides, brushed back from his forehead, pulled into a queue, and tied with a black ribbon at the back. The background of the portrait is a warm brownish-red.
Label:Gilbert Stuart rapidly developed the confident and individualistic painterly style for which he remains so highly acclaimed today. In an era when many artists focused on the tedious replication of minute detail, the novelty of Stuart's loose, suggestive brushwork fired the imagination. More critically, he was extraordinarily skillful at capturing the essence of sitters' personalities, an especially elusive aspect of portraiture that every self-respecting practitioner aspired to master. Benjamin West, an exceptional painter himself, described Stuart's style succinctly by saying, "he nails the face to the canvas."

Stuart created between twelve and sixteen versions of this bust-length likeness of George Washington showing the right side of the face, eyes front. All were derived from an original life portrait that does not survive, Stuart himself having destroyed his first attempt as unsatisfactory. Today, examples of the composition are known as the artist's "Vaughan type" Washington, the name deriving from an early replica painted in 1795 for Philadelphia merchant John Vaughan (who, in turn, sent it to his father, Samuel, in London).

Colonial Williamsburg's version of the portrait is one of notable quality. It was commissioned directly from Stuart by Major General Henry ("Light Horse Harry") Lee (1756-1818), a close friend of Washington's and one of the commander-in-chief's most brilliant, trusted, and highly-regarded officers during the Revolutionary War. (It was Lee whose 1799 eulogy described Washington as "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.")

By the time Washington posed for Stuart in 1795, he had been elected president twice, in 1789 and 1792 (both times unanimously via electoral college votes). In modern terms, he had attained cult status; accordingly, likenesses of him were in great demand. He despised posing, however, describing his mood on the occasion of sitting for another painter "grave," "sullen," and "now and then under the influence of Morpheus," i.e., sleepy. Luckily, Stuart was a shrewd and masterful conversationalist, exceedingly adept at stimulating his subjects and drawing them out. Ultimately, he reported, his queries about farming and horses had enlivened the stony features of his esteemed subject.
Provenance:From the artist to Henry Lee (1756-1818); to William C. Somerville (d. 1825), St. Mary's or Charles Co., Md.; to Henry Vernon Somerville, "Bloomsbury" (near Catonsville), Md.; to Luke Tiernan Brien; to John B. Morris, Sr., Baltimore, Md.; to Mrs. Thomas Hollingsworth Morris; to Mrs. Clayton C. Hall, Ruxton, Md.; to M. Knoedler & Co., New York, NY; to Edward S. Harkness, New York, NY; to Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, New York, NY; bequeathed by the last to CWF in 1950. See amplified provenance/history in file.
Mark(s):None found.