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.
The kings of Rome were overthrown in 509 BCE, establishing the period of the Republic. During this period, Rome conquered vast amounts of land throughout the continent of Europe, which put a strain on its political system and weakened the power of the Senate. Art was used to insight political and social change and ease the tension on the political system. The life-size bronze statue Aulus Metellus was used to speak to the people, assuring them that their government was working in their interests. Artists of the Republican period were keen on creating believable images based on careful study called naturalism. Romans loved accurate and faithful portraits of their leaders and were drawn to the confidence in the Republic exuded by these faithful representations.
Aulus Metellus is a remarkable statue due to its naturalism and its ability to interact with the viewer. The life size statue of a Roman official (the name is inscribed in the hem of his robe) stretches his hand out toward the crowd he is addressing. With his arm outstretched toward the people, the official is letting the public know that he has the power and authority to help them. His pose makes him ‘one of the people’ rather than some god-like government official. His toga is neatly folded and draped around his body, which is un-idealized, marking him as a governmental official, but an official that is of the people and works for the people. His features are common and not idealized like the statues of the gods were. Viewers would be able to identify with this statue and place their trust in the government this official hails from. The portrayal of senators and officials as caring and strong individuals helped restore trust and ease the tension on the Republic’s political system.