Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), 1796

5 Sep

In post-revolutionary America, grand, heroic, and idealized portraits of American leaders held no appeal for the country. Distrustful of what those grand and romanticized paintings stood for, Americans preferred simple and realistic portrayals of their patriots and leaders. One such realistic portrait was done by American artist Gilbert Stuart in 1796 and is now known as the Lansdowne Portrait because it was given as a gift to William Petty of Lansdowne. The painting is full of symbolism and representations of the new country and appealed to the vision of a government for the people that appealed to American citizens.

Washington is portrayed standing, in a black suit and powdered wig with his right hand outstretched in an oratorical manner and his left holding a ceremonial sword. His demeanor is commanding, yet open. The background is inspired by the Roman Republic with Doric columns with red drapes wrapped around them. A rainbow shoots through the sky symbolizing God’s agreement with the new country after the Revolutionary War and the prosperity that will follow. Washington’s suit is simple and not adorned with medals and ornaments typical of portraits in Europe. His sword is ceremonial and signifies his role in the Revolution and his role as commander-in-chief, but also stands for a democratic form of government over a monarchy. On the table beside Washington are volumes of the Journal of Congress and The Federalist Papers with the Constitution underneath them. They are all together on the table to symbolize the balance of powers within the new American government. Despite fears that glorifying a war hero would encourage a dictatorship, the simple characteristics of Washington and the importance placed on democracy appealed to Americans.


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