The Lansdowne Portrait
The Lansdowne Portrait by Gilbert Stuart is one of the best portraits of George Washington. George Washington Parke Custis, the President's grandson, said it "is incomparably the best likeness of the Chief." Former director of the National Portrait Gallery, Marvin Sadik, considered it "the American portrait." President Washington actually sat for Gilbert Stuart three separate times for three separate paintings. This article will explain the history of Stuart's three paintings of Washington, especially the Lansdowne Portrait.
The Artist - Gilbert Stuart
Gilbert Stuart was born in Rhode Island and showed promise as a young art student. He went to England to hone his skill, where he lived for seventeen years. He returned to America in 1793 with the intent of painting Washington and making a fortune from the reproductions. Paintings of the President were in high demand in England and in America.
It was common at that time for the artist to paint an original of someone and then paint many copies to sell for more income. Repainting the original was the only way to reproduce a painting, since there was no other way to make a copy at that time. Stuart painted at least 101 copies from the original three sittings.
The Vaughan Portrait
Stuart came to Washington with a recommendation from John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whom Stuart had also painted. George Washington was notorious for hating to sit for so long for a painting. All the artists who painted him said the same thing. He reluctantly agreed to sit for Stuart at his Philadelphia studio for the first time in March 1795. Stuart's home and studio were right across the street from the government buildings in Philadelphia.
The result of this painting is known as the Vaughan Portrait because the first owner of one of many replicas was Samuel Vaughan, a friend of President Washington. The Vaughan portrait was said by some to be the best painting of Washington. Stuart made at least 17 reproductions of the Vaughan Portrait. He said he destroyed the original, but this has never been confirmed.
Stuart's statements about his own work are often brought into question because he was known to be conniving and duplicitous at times. He was apparently an alcoholic and suffered from depression and temper tantrums. He was also constantly in financial trouble, which led to many poor business decisions and angry feelings by those he was painting who often got the bad end of the deal.
You can read more about the Vaughan Portrait here.
The Lansdowne Portrait
In April 1796, Washington sat for Stuart once again at the personal request of Mrs. Anne Bingham, wife of Senator William Bingham. The Bingham's wished to commission a painting of Washington as a gift for William Petty, the first Marquis of Lansdowne in England. Petty was a member of Parliament during the Revolution who had supported the colonies. He had also served as Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1782-1783.
Washington, albeit reluctantly, agreed to sit for the Bingham's as their personal friend. Stuart's style was to engage his subjects in discussion about topics in which they were interested, in order to get them talking and laughing. This allowed him to see their faces in their natural state, rather than having them sit stoically with an unnatural expression. President Washington, however, wasn't interested in conversation for the first sitting and for this second sitting, Stuart struggled to get him talking as well.
The eventual painting that was the result of this sitting is now known as the Lansdowne Portrait, being named after the original recipient. In addition, all the other paintings which were reproductions are known as Lansdownes as well. The painting is unique in that it was the only painting of Washington standing in civilian clothes, instead of in military dress.
His outstretched right arm shows an oratorical pose and is thought to represent his then recent speech to Congress encouraging them to accept the Jay Treaty, which was a pending treaty between the United States and Great Britain to end certain disputes remaining from the American Revolution.
The Lansdowne Portrait contains many different allegorical images representing Washington's presidency, including a storm cloud to represent the recent war and a rainbow symbolizing a new day after the storm. The table leg is reminiscent of a Roman fasces, which was a symbol of rule during the Roman Republic. Two eagles on top of the leg are holding a bunch of arrows to represent war.
The back of the chair contains the stars and stripes of the Great Seal of the United States and represent the thirteen colonies. The books on the table are the "Federalist" and the "Journal of Congress," to represent the new government.
The books on the floor are "General Orders," "American Revolution" and "Constitution and Bylaws" to symbolize Washington's role as Commander of the Continental Army and his role as President of the new republic. The inkwell contains Washington's family crest. Washington's black hat sits on the table.
Washington wears civilian clothes to represent civil rule, rather than military rule. The sword is sheathed to represent the laying down of arms. The portico is in the European tradition of grand stately paintings of kings, generals and other important figures.
As for the figure of Washington himself, the Lansdowne Portrait contains several interesting oddities. For instance, you may notice that the body seems out of proportion with the head. George Washington was 6 foot 3 and, as the custom was for a painter in that day, Stuart only painted Washington's face while the President was actually sitting before him. The rest of the painting was done in the studio and a body double was often used as a model. It is believed that Stuart used a friend as a stand-in who was only 5 foot 6 and stocky, hence the disproportionate body!
George Washington was known to have very large hands as well. In the painting, Stuart used his own hands as a model, which were much smaller than Washington's hands. Finally, many people comment on the odd shape of Washington's lower jaw. The reason for this is that George Washington had just received a new set of false teeth!
False teeth were quite crude and painful in that day and Washington often tightened his lips and face to hold the teeth in! This accounts for the tight lips and the puffy and protruding lower jaw. You will notice in the Athenaeum Portrait below, the final portrait of Washington by Stuart, that the face is back to its normal size. This is because Washington's new false teeth he was wearing at the time of the Lansdowne Portrait were irritating him so much that by the time of the third painting he had received a new set that was much more wearable!
History of the Lansdowne Portrait
The portrait was indeed sent to the Marquis of Lansdowne in London, where it stayed until 1805 at his death. It went through several different hands until it finally came into the hands of Archibald Primrose, Lord Dalmeny, 5th Earl of Rosebery around 1890.
The painting stayed in the Primrose family for the next century. It was loaned to the United States on two occasions, during the nation's centennial celebrations and for the 200th birthday of birthday.
In 1968, the Dalmeny family agreed to loan the Lansdowne Portrait to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution for its grand opening. The painting stayed in Washington continually after that, even though it was still owned by the Dalmeny's.
In 2000, 33 year old Lord Harry Dalmeny, then the current owner of the painting, decided to sell the Lansdowne Portrait. He offered it to the National Portrait Gallery for $20 million dollars. The Smithsonian advertised for a donor and found one in the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation which supplied the money. The Lansdowne Portrait has been on display in Washington DC ever since.
The Lansdowne Portrait is the original painting of George Washington standing in civilian clothes by Gilbert Stuart, but there are numerous copies, some of them by Stuart himself. The Bingham family liked the painting so much that they ordered a second copy for their home outside Philadelphia. This painting resides today at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.
A third copy resides at the Brooklyn Museum. This one was commissioned by William Constable, a New York City businessman who happened to be in Philadelphia at the time Stuart was painting the original Lansdowne Portrait. Constable visited Stuart's studio for his own portrait while in Philadelphia and saw the unfinished Lansdowne Portrait. He was so impressed he asked Stuart to make one for him as well, which he did. Even the Marquis de Lafayette remarked on how lifelike the painting was when he saw it at Constable's home during his visit to the United States in 1824. The painting remained in the family of Constable's daughter, Mrs. Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont for generations until it was purchased by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1947.
There is a 4th copy of the Lansdowne Portrait in the White House that is surrounded by controversy. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a signer of the US Constitution from South Carolina, came to Philadelphia in September 1796. He had been appointed America's ambassador to France and had come to Philadelphia to get his official papers. Apparently when Pinckney was having his own portrait painted by Stuart, he also saw the original Lansdowne Portrait and the first two copies, none of which had yet been delivered. He ordered a copy from Stuart for the ambassador's residence in Paris. This painting was finished in July 1797 and paid for in the amount of $500 by the US government. When Pinckney arrived in Paris, however, his papers were rejected by the French government and he returned to America in 1798. The painting was never sent to Paris.
What happened to the painting is up for debate. Stuart was notorious for poor business dealings and some scholars believe he sold the painting to someone else (even though he had already been paid) thinking he would just make another one if necessary for Pinckney. Pinckney tried to contact Stuart on numerous occasions after his return to America to enquire about the painting, but Stuart would never respond.
In 1798, a certain Gardiner Baker, who owned a museum in New York, put up an advertisement stating that a "full-length of General Washington... by Mr. G. Stewart" would be displayed at his museum for a month before going on a tour around the nation. Many scholars believe this was indeed the portrait Pinckney had ordered.
Mr. Baker had an untimely death and the painting went to a creditor named Thomas Laing who later offered to sell the painting to the US government. A purchase order survives that is dated July 5, 1800, which is signed by Major General Henry Light-Horse Harry Lee who was a member of Congress at the time. The purchase order authorizes $800 "To one portrait full length of the late Genl. Washington by Stewart with frame bought from Thos. Lang."
The painting was delivered to the White House by another artist who had been retained to make the transfer, an artist by the name of William Winstanley, who was a known copier of some of Stuart's other works. Stuart later claimed the painting in the White House was not his own work, but was instead, a copy by Winstanley.
Many scholars and conservators believe this was a fabrication by Stuart who was trying to cover up his dishonest behavior in selling the painting twice. They find the painting to be in exactly the same style and with the same markers that were on all of Stuart's paintings.
Others believe the painting was indeed created by Stuart, but was a separate one from the Pinckney painting due to some records found in Baker's papers that indicate he bought a painting around the same time from Stuart. Nevertheless, because of Stuart's denial, the true origin of the painting is somewhat clouded in mystery.
On August 24, 1814, Washington was under attack from the invading British army during the War of 1812. President Madison sent word to his wife, Dolley, at the White House to get out of town as fast as she could.
On the way out, Dolley gave orders to save certain papers of the President's, as well as the Stuart painting of George Washington. They were in such a hurry that they broke the frame it was held in and took the canvas with them. The White House was destroyed by fire during the war. The painting was returned to the rebuilt White House in 1817, where it has remained ever since. It hangs in the East Room today.
After the original Lansdowne Portrait and the three known copies, Stuart made numerous other replicas, but with alterations. In many of the later replicas, Stuart altered Washington's body shape, the articles in the room and replaced Washington's head with his later Athenaeum Portrait version, since he thought it was a better likeness of Washington.
Around 1800, Stuart painted a copy that has become known as the Munro-Lenox Portrait, named after its first two owners. This version of the Lansdowne portrait has a more proportionate George Washington and has his hand resting on the Constitution on the table, rather than with the outstretched hand in the earlier versions. Several of Stuart's replicas of this version still exist, including those at the Rhode Island and Connecticut State Houses.
Another version is known as the Hamilton-Constable Portrait. This version is a close up of the same painting and has Washington seated with an ocean view out the window. This painting was commissioned by William Constable as a gift for Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first Treasury Secretary and a close friend of Washington's. The Hamilton-Constable Portrait was housed at the New York Public Library for years until it was sold to a private collector in 2005.
Numerous other versions exist as well that were painted by copycat artists. For example, the Lansdowne at Washington and Lee University is believed to have been painted by William Winstanley and was originally owned by an Indian businessman in Calcutta. There are two versions hanging in the US Capitol as well, one in the Rayburn Room and one in the House Chamber. The painter of the first is unknown and the painter of the second was John Vanderlyn, another copier of Stuart's works.
The Athenaeum Portrait
Some time later in 1796, Washington sat for Stuart once again, this time at the request of Martha Washington. Martha wanted to have paintings of she and George for their home.
This time, unfortunately for the Washingtons, Stuart never did finish the paintings! He thought the painting of Washington was so good that he decided to keep it and use it for reproductions, which could earn him a fortune. Indeed, he called the picture his "hundred dollar bill" because he charged a hundred dollars for a copy.
Martha sent letters to his studio on numerous occasions asking if the paintings had been completed. Stuart kept making excuses. George Washington even went to the studio several times, but finally gave up and Martha ended up buying one of the copies!
An engraving of the Athenaeum Portrait is the picture that is used on the United States one dollar bill. This particular painting is probably the most famous painting of Washington, meaning that when you or anyone else pictures George Washington, you are probably seeing something in your mind that was the creation of Gilbert Stuart.
You can read more about the Athenaeum Portrait here.
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.
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