The Lansdowne portrait is an iconic life-size portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. It depicts a 64-year-old Washington in his last year as President of the United States. Stuart painted the Lansdowne portrait, three copies of it, and five portraits that were closely related to it. The most famous copy is the one in the East Room of the White House.
To preclude its possible sale at auction, the original painting was purchased in 2001 by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., for $30,000,000. Source [WikiPedia]
- The painting is not named after its subject or its commissioner
Instead, the Lansdowne Portrait is named for the Marquess of Lansdowne. Born William Petty-FitzMaurice, he was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the end of the American Revolution and the beginnings of the peace negotiations. American senator William Bingham commissioned this portrait in 1795. It was a present for the Marquess, in thanks for his support of the Jay Treaty and normalizing relations between the two countries.
- Stuart was a cowardly patriot
As the American Revolution approached, the Rhode Island-born painter fled to England to escape the conflict. There and in Ireland, he developed a reputation as a portrait artist. Stuart won praise for capturing the character of his subjects, as he did with the 1782 painting of William Grant, The Skater.
- This painting helped redefine Washington’s image.
Previous paintings, like John Trumbull’s George Washington Before the Battle of Trenton, presented the sitting president as a general contemplating battle. Stuart’s full-length portraits portrayed him as “a civilian commander in chief.” Here, he is a man of peace, but nonetheless shown as strong, holding a compelling oratorical pose, while clutching a ceremonial sword.
- The setting is part of European tradition.
“State” portraits—praising paintings of powerful men—often set their subjects in porticos with columns, drapes, and a bit of open sky. This setting would then be draped in symbols, often of status or accomplishment. Stuart took this concept used for monarchs, bishops, and military leaders and re-imagined it for this new brand of leader.
- The silver inkwell contains several symbols.
The inkwell itself is meant to represent Washington’s legacy of signing in legislation, like the 1795 Jay Treaty. The little dog on which the well rests is inspired by Greek historian Plutarch’s work, symbolizing “the conservative watchful, philosophical principle of life.” The griffin of the Washington family crest is engraved on the inkwell.
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