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The Athenaeum Portrait
of George Washington

The Athenaeum Portrait is the result of the last sitting of George Washington before the great artist Gilbert Stuart, some time in late 1796. Washington sat for the famous artist for the third time at the request of Martha Washington. Martha wanted paintings of both she and George for Mount Vernon. This time, the location for the sitting was Stuart's barn at his home in Germantown, just outside Philadelphia.

Athenaeum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

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Athenaeum Portrait by
Gilbert Stuart

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Washington had already sat for Stuart on two other occasions at his studio in Philadelphia. The President was notorious for disliking sittings for artists. He particularly disliked sitting for Gilbert Stuart because Stuart's technique was to get the subject to talk about things he or she was interested in to give their face a more natural appearance.

As with the other paintings, President Washington was not interested in talking, but at one point during the session, Stuart noticed a brief smile on Washington's face. Stuart asked about this and found out that a horse had just gone by outside the window that had caught the President's eye. Washington was an avid horseman.

At this point, Stuart began asking questions about horses and Washington finally began to respond. Eventually the conversation steered toward farming, which Washington was also very interested in. Stuart had never thought to discuss horses or farming with the President. Instead, he had tried to get him to talk about battles and military strategy and politics, all things which Washington had little interest in discussing.

Typically for such a painting, the subject would have to sit three times, each time for around two hours. After sitting so many times, Washington finally found a way to ease his boredom with the whole process. By the end of the session he had brought his friends General Henry Knox and Harriet Chew along with him for someone else to converse with.

In this case, Stuart never finished the paintings. Instead, because he thought the painting of Washington was so good, he decided to keep it and use it as a model for reproductions from which he could earn a lot of money.

Martha Washington by Gilbert Stuart

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Martha Washington by
Gilbert Stuart

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Martha Washington sent letters to his studio on numerous occasions asking where the paintings were. Stuart kept saying they weren't finished yet. Friends said that Washington went to the studio several times as well and finally gave up in frustration.

Stuart made a virtual industry of reproducing and selling copies of the painting of George, one of which Martha ended up buying! He is known to have called the painting his "hundred dollar bill" because he charged a hundred dollars for a copy. There are more than seventy known copies by Stuart himself and hundreds by copycat artists. He never made copies of the painting of Martha, however, as it was the picture of the President that was in demand.

Many of Stuart's copies look different than the original. He seemed to be constantly adjusting the size of Washington's head, making this one a little skinnier and that one a little longer. The artistic quality of the copies is often criticized. A friend later said he was never satisfied that his copies were as good as the original and his daughter later commented that she remembered him painting them so quickly by the end of his life that he could finish one in two hours.

Athenaeum Portrait being moved

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The Athenaeum and Martha
Washington Portraits being moved
at the National Portrait Gallery


Stuart was so pleased with the Athenaeum Portrait that he used it to replace the heads on reproductions of his two earlier paintings of Washington, which are known as the Vaughan Portrait and the Lansdowne Portrait.

Stuart held on to the original Athenaeum Portrait until his death in 1828. In 1831, his daughter sold the painting to the Boston Athenaeum, which was a library in Boston. This is the reason the painting is called the Athenaeum Portrait. In 1876, the Board of Trustees of the Athenaeum created the separate Boston Museum of Fine Arts to display its art collection.

The painting remained in the possession of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts until 1980, when a deal was negotiated that gave joint possession of the Athenaeum Portrait to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Today it is displayed at one institution for a few years and then switched to the other institution, along with the portrait of Martha.

The Athenaeum Portrait is the same one that is on the United States one dollar bill. Gilbert Stuart's paintings of George Washington were reproduced so often in that day and this, that when most people envision George Washington, they are actually seeing Washington as Stuart created him.

For more on the paintings of George Washington, go to our George Washington Pictures page.

You can also learn more about President Washington's life at our George Washington Facts page.

Published 5/17/12

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