There is an understandable tendency to generalize when discussing one of Gilbert Stuart’s numerous replicas of his life portrait of President Washington, and to speak of it as essentially indistinguishable from its comrades. To have seen a dozen or so casually leaves such an impression. But when one has the opportunity to study several such pictures attentively it soon becomes clear that there are many differences, and that they are significant in terms of both expressiveness and of quality.
We refer, of course, to the so-called “Athenaeum”1The name derives from the fact that Stuart willed the original life portrait to the Boston Athenaeum, where it remained until its joint purchase by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. type of Washington portrait in which the head and torso turn to the sitter’s right, showing the proper left side of his face. This is the second likeness Stuart made of the president, and the one which has become canonical. After painting this portrait (it was completed in April 1796), Stuart retained it for the rest of his life despite the fact that it was apparently promised to Martha Washington. He used it as the model for perhaps seventy replicas over the next three decades, a ready source of income for an artist who habitually lived beyond his means. Indeed, Stuart had returned to America in 1793 from a successful career in Ireland and England precisely in order to “make a fortune by Washington,” as he told an Irish artist before his departure.2John Dowling Herbert, quoted in William T. Whitely, Gilbert Stuart (Cambridge, Mass., 1932), 85; see also Ellen G. Miles, American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1995), 161–62. Despite the strong demand on the artist to multiply replicas of the most famous American, Stuart’s genius apparently would not permit him to literally repeat himself but led him to make numerous changes from one canvas to the next—of emphasis, mood, modeling, color, and costume.
Perhaps the first impression of the State Department’s replica is that the nose seems very prominent, indeed almost massive. As if keyed by the nose, the eye sockets, mouth, and jaw are also strongly described with modeling that imbues this version with an uncommon degree of structure. The brushwork is very evident, free and confident. The strongest effect is produced by the pedestal-like neck wrapped in its white neckcloth, and by the skillful, shadowed transition to the head. Although the color is not as “high” as in some replicas—less pink, with less emphatic silverish highlights on the forehead—there are expressive touches such as the highlight on the tip of the nose and the rose-pink stroke high on the chin.
Stuart had barely sketched the costume in the life portrait, and so was free to paint it as he wished in the many replicas. Here the shirt ruffle is thinly painted, giving a translucent effect. The dashing, improvisational brushwork in the ruffle and in the neckcloth is sufficient evidence of the artist’s skill. A detail most likely unfamiliar to the present-day viewer is the curved, serrated black shape seen over the president’s shoulder. It is a hair bag, described thus by one who saw Washington address the Congress in Philadelphia: “His hair [was] profusely powdered, fully dressed, so as to project at the sides, and gathered behind in a silk bag, ornamented with a large rose of black riband [sic].”3Sigma [pseudonym], “The Character and Personal Appearance of Washington,” National Intelligencer, February 1847, quoted in Ellen G. Miles, George and Martha Washington: Portraits from the Presidential Years (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery, 1999), 46.
The dating of the replicas is usually dependent either upon knowledge of the first owner or upon stylistic comparisons with datable replicas or other portraits by Stuart. In this case, it is proposed that similarities with the so-called “Pennington” Washington, of about 1803–1805 (United States Senate), make that a likely date for the State Department portrait as well.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.