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The Vaughan Portrait

The Vaughan Portrait was the first portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart in March 1795. It gets its name from Samuel Vaughan, an American merchant living in London, who was the recipient of the first copy of the original painting made by Stuart.

Vaughan Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

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Vaughan Portrait by
Gilbert Stuart

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George Washington was painted by Gilbert Stuart on three separate occasions. Stuart was the most prominent painter of portraits in the early days of the United States. He painted all of the first five presidents, as well as other notable figures such as General Henry Knox, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay and First Ladies Dolley Madison, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams.

Stuart was born in Rhode Island, but studied in Great Britain where he lived for 17 years. He came back to the United States with the express purpose of painting George Washington because he knew he could earn a fortune from the copies. It was customary for artists to reproduce their own paintings in those days to sell copies for further income.

Stuart's style was to get the subject talking about something interesting to him or her because he believed the animated face was more realistic than if someone merely sat stonefaced. Unfortunately for Stuart, President Washington hated sitting for paintings and would not respond to his many efforts to get him talking. The President was 63 at the time.

For a typical portrait painting in those days, it was common for the subject to sit about three times and for two hours in each session. Washington wouldn't have had to travel far because Stuart's home and studio was just across the street from the government buildings in Philadelphia at 5th and Chestnut Streets. This was before the government moved to Washington DC. Stuart was so much in demand as an artist that he later bought a farm several miles away from the city so he could paint without constant interruptions.

The original Vaughan Portrait was kept by Gilbert Stuart so he could paint copies from it. On April 20, 1795, he compiled a list of 32 people who had ordered 39 copies of the Vaughan painting. At least 17 of these copies painted by Stuart himself are still existing. He later claimed to have destroyed the original one, perhaps after he had two more sittings with Washington in the following year, that proved to be even more lucrative than the first.

Gibbs-Channing-Avery Vaughan Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

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Portrait by
Gilbert Stuart


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The result of the second sitting is known as the Lansdowne Portrait, the only full length portrait of Washington in civilian clothes.

The result of the third sitting is known as the Athenaeum Portrait because it was long owned by the Boston Athenaeum, a local library and museum in Boston. An engraving of the Athenaeum Portrait is the picture that graces the American one dollar bill.

The Vaughan Portrait gets its name from Samuel Vaughan, a friend of President Washington's who was then living in London. The painting was purchased by his son John Vaughan in 1795 as a gift for his father. For many years, this painting was believed to be the original, but scholars now believe it was the first copy painted by Stuart. This first copy that was owned by Samuel Vaughan is today in the possession of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Some experts believe the Vaughan painting is the best of Stuart's portraits of Washington because of its "earthy" and "natural" appearance. It doesn't seem as stiff and posed as the others.

If you see any of the other Vaughan Portraits, you will notice that they are not all the same. Even the ones Stuart painted himself are quite different. He did a lot of adjusting of the size and shape of Washington's head, for example.

In some, he changed the background color, or the color of Washington's suit. He also used the head from his famous Athenaeum Portrait on top of the Vaughan Portrait background in several later paintings because he thought the Athenaeum head was a better likeness of Washington.

Vaughan Portrait by Rembrandt Peale

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Vaughan Portrait replica
by Rembrandt Peale


One of Stuart's "original" Vaughan copies, which was once owned by Virginia Governor and Major-General Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, is now owned by Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia, along with Stuart's original painting of James Madison and an early replica of his Thomas Jefferson painting.

Each copy is known by a separate name, usually after the original owner or first several owners, such as the Steigerwalt-Parker-Hart Portrait or the Gibbs-Channing-Avery Portrait, which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In spite of these paintings each having a separate name, they are all said to be of the "Vaughan type," since they are based on the original Vaughan painting.

Numerous other artists copied Stuart's Vaughan Portrait as well, some with a near exact likeness and others that were quite obviously different. At the right you can see a replica of the Vaughan painting painted by Rembrandt Peale, another famous founding era artist. The differences in the face are quite obvious.

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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