SCRIPT - GEORGE WASHINGTON
Imagine it’s 1796, and you’re an artist. You’ve been asked to paint a portrait of George Washington. How would you portray him?
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Would you paint him as the general who won the Revolutionary War? In his uniform? Maybe leading troops into battle?
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Or would you paint him as the first president of the fledgling United States of America? Maybe in civilian clothes, maybe giving a speech.
That’s the choice Gilbert Stuart faced. He was the most famous American portrait artist of the time. In 1796, William Bingham, a wealthy merchant and U.S. senator, commissioned Stuart to paint a full-length portrait of Washington as a gift to Lord Landsdowne, a former British prime minister.
Stuart decided not to paint Washington as a general, and not to paint him as the president of a small and shaky nation. Instead, he paints Washington in a setting of large columns and imposing drapery...and standing in a pose imitating Greek and Roman sculptures and European paintings of orators. He painted Washington in what was called... the Grand Manner.
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The Grand Manner was a style that imitated paintings of European kings and queens. Stuart’s goal was to link Washington, and the new nation of America, to the great civilizations of the past.
And now here’s a verbal description of the painting of George Washington. It’s about 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide.
In the painting the figure of Washington is life-size. He’s standing and dominates the center of the painting. His body is slightly turned toward the left side of the painting.
He’s wearing a black velvet coat that comes down to his knees and black shoes, and black stockings that come up to his knees, as was the fashion of the time for men. At his chest and neck you can see a white ruffled shirt that was the style of the day, wrapping tight around his neck like a turtleneck shirt of today would.
Although he’s in civilian dress, his left hand holds a sword by his side. He’s holding it by the scabbard just below the hilt or handle. The sword is pointing down to the floor. The sword reminds us of his military past and suggests the might of the presidency.
His right arm is stretched out toward the left of the painting, with his palm open and turned toward us. He seems to be using the gesture to emphasize a point he’s just made.
Stuart was known for painting without the aid of sketches, beginning directly upon the canvas, very unusual for the time. This is significant because the president only posed once for Stuart that we know of. So in the short time he had, the artist concentrated on getting his face correct. To finish the portrait, Stuart later used another man as a stand in, to pose as a model for Washington’s body. So though Washington’s face is accurate, the body is not.
Washington stands upon a carpet that has a patterned design of red, green, and gold. On his right, your left, is the corner of a table with a red velvet cloth draped over it. The leg of the table is painted gold. Behind Washington, on your right, is a chair. The legs and back of the chair are also painted gold; the seat and the back are upholstered in red material.
Stuart covered the table and chair with symbols.
The table leg shows a carving of an American eagle and a fasces, thirteen bundled rods symbolizing the unification of the original colonies. The back of the chair has an oval medallion carving of the Stars and Stripes on the American flag.
Under the table, some books stand on the floor, propped against the table leg. You can read the titles. One is American Revolution, another Constitution and Laws of the United States.
The background of the painting shows large round columns, from which hang huge billowing drapes of red material with golden drawstrings and tassels.
This background suggests the architecture of a powerful civilization. Eventually the city of Washington would be built in that imposing style of architecture.
Through the drapery you can see glimpses of a rainbow in the sky.
The rainbow is a symbol of the peace after the storm of the American Revolution.
In this portrait, Stuart was not trying to make Washington look like a hero. But he did try to make him look as impressive as possible, both to his fellow Americans and to European leaders, still adjusting to reality of a new nation, and its new president.