Lansdowne portrait

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George Washington
(Lansdowne portrait of George Washington)
Gilbert Stuart - George Washington - Google Art Project.jpg
Artist Gilbert Stuart
Year 1796
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 243.8 cm × 152.4 cm (8 ft × 5 ft)
Location National Portrait Gallery (United States)

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 Pennsylvania—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 British Prime Minister, born William Petty FitzMaurice; the second Earl of Shelburne and subsequently the first Marquess of Lansdowne. Petty-FitzMaurice was an American sympathizer who supported independence of the colonies in Parliament. He succeeded in securing peace with America during his term as Prime Minister of Great Britain.[1] The Lansdowne portrait was completed in the fall of that year by American artist Gilbert Stuart (who made several other portraits of George Washington, and many others of prominent American revolutionaries). The painting shows Washington at 64 years of age renouncing a third term as U.S. President. It is currently on permanent display at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. Replicas painted by Stuart are on display in the East Room of the White House, the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum. Additional copies painted by other artists are displayed in the U.S. House Chamber and the Rayburn room of the Capitol.[2]

In 2001, The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation funded the purchase, for $20 million, of the Lansdowne portrait. The Foundation donated an additional $10 million to provide a dedicated space for it at the National Portrait Gallery where it had previously been on loan.[3]

Description and analysis

The table leg may have been inspired by a wooden ceremonial mace in the U.S. House of Representatives, one that was later destroyed when the British destroyed the capital city during the War of 1812 (the U.S. House symbol was itself inspired by the Roman fasces). The House mace was a bundle of tied reeds topped with a bald eagle, an American symbol.

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 States 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 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."
Detail of the book bindings in the White House's copy of the Lansdowne portrait. "UNITED STATES" is misspelled as "UNITED SATES" to mark the copy.

The U.S. government bought a copy of this portrait from Stuart. That painting was rescued from the White House during the War of 1812 just before British soldiers captured the mansion, served themselves dinner, and burned it down. First Lady Dolley Madison wrote about saving Washington's portrait and is often credited with the rescue. The memoir of Paul Jennings, who was James Madison's slave and manservant, identifies the doorman John Susé and the gardener Mr. Magraw as the people who removed the portrait for safe keeping.[4] After the incident, several other copies of the portrait were commissioned. The copy which Dolly Madison rescued currently hangs in the East Room of the White House. The copies are easily identified by a misspelling purposely inserted into each, on the spine of one of the books resting on the floor. The book's title (spelled correctly on the original) reads "Constitution and Laws of the United Sates [sic]."


  1., U.K.Government. "Past Prime Ministers". U.K.Government. Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, Artist Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington. Accessed: May 11, 2012.
  3. Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, Special Projects
  4. A colored man's reminiscences of James Madison, Paul Jennings, J. B. R., published by G.C. Beadle, 1865, page 15

External links