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The Lansdowne portrait is an iconic oil-on-canvas portrait of George Washington, the first President of the United States. The portrait was commissioned in April 1796 by Senator William Bingham of Pennsylvaniamarker—one of the wealthiest men in the U.S. at the time—and his wife, Anne. The portrait measures 8 by 5 feet (2.44 by 1.52 m) and was given as a gift of appreciation to William Petty, the second Earl of Shelburne and the first Marquess of Lansdowne. Petty was an American sympathizer who supported independence of the colonies in Parliamentmarker. It was completed in the fall of that year by American artist Gilbert Stuart (who made two other portraits of George Washington, and many others of prominent American revolutionaries). The painting shows Washington (then at 64 years old) renouncing a third term as U.S. President. It is currently on permanent display at the National Portrait Gallerymarker of the Smithsonian Institutionmarker. There are also copies on display in the East Room of the White Housemarker, the U.S. House Chamber, and the Rayburn room of the Capitolmarker.

In 2001, The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation committed $30 million to buy the painting and created a permanent home for it at the National Portrait Gallery where it had previously been on anonymous loan. 1

Description and analysis

The painting is full of symbolism, drawn from both American and ancient Roman symbols of the Roman Republic. Stuart painted Washington from life, showing him standing up, dressed in a black velvet suit with an outstretched hand held up in an oratorical manner (which could be characterized as "commanding and stern yet open and inclusive"). In the background behind Washington is a row of two Doric columns, with another row to the left. Wrapped around and between the columns are red tasseled drapes.



Washington's suit is plain and simple, and the sword that he holds on his left side is a dress sword and not a battle sword (symbolizing a democratic form of government, rather than a monarchy or military dictatorship). In the sky, storm clouds appear on the left while a rainbow appears on the right, signifying the American Revolutionary War giving way to the peace and prosperity of the new United Statesmarker after the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The medallion at the top of the chair shows the red, white, and blue colors of the American flag.

On and under the tablecloth-draped table to the left are two books: Federalist—probably a reference to the Federalist Papers—and Journal of Congress—the Congressional Record). Another five books are under the table: the three to the right are General Orders, American Revolution, and Constitutional Bylaws—symbolizing Washington's leadership as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and president of the Constitutional Convention.

The pen and paper on the table signify the rule of law. The leg of the table is shaped like a fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of power and authority (imperium). On the far left of the table is a silver inkwell, emblazed with George Washington's coat of arms (see Syng inkstand). A white quill rests upon silver dogs, ancient symbols of loyalty. Behind the table is a large black hat.

Washington's unusually clenched facial expression comes from his famous false teeth. Jean-Antoine Houdon's marble sculpture of Washington shows a more natural expression. Stuart wrote that:
When I painted him [Washington], he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face...Houdon's bust does not suffer from this defect."


The portrait is claimed to have been saved during the War of 1812 by First Lady Dolley Madison right before British soldiers broke into the White Housemarker, served themselves dinner, and burned down the settlement. More recent research instead points to a cook serving in the White Housemarker as the likely savior of the painting.

Sources

  • "The Portrait." George Washington: A National Treasure. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. [119842]
  • Kellogg, Stuart. "By George!" Victor Valley Daily Press (CA). November 16, 2002. [119843]



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