Art Works Blog

A Portrait of the President as a Not-So-Young Man

Break out the cherry pie: tomorrow is George Washington’s birthday! To celebrate what would have been Washington’s 288th birthday, we’re revisiting what is probably the most famous portrait of our nation’s first president—what’s known as the Lansdowne portrait by Gilbert Stuart, which he painted in 1796. Here are five facts you might not have known about this this celebrated painting.

Did you know…? Does Washington look like he’s clenching his teeth? Maybe like he’s (not) grinning and bearing it? Well, according to Stuart, that was not because of poor paintership on his part, but because Washington was sporting a new set of dentures, which were even more painful than his old ones. (This was apparently a persistent sore spot for Washington—literally—and he took laudanum to ease the persistent ache). By the time he became president, he had only a single tooth of his own left.

Did you know…? This may be a painting of one of America’s greatest patriots, but it was actually a gift for—gasp!—a Brit. Senator William Bingham originally commissioned the portrait for the British Prime Minister William Petty, Marquess of Lansdowne, who was prime minister by the end of the Revolutionary War. The gift was meant to thank the Marquess for supporting the Jay Treaty, which for a while, helped smooth relations between the two countries after the war’s end.

Did you know…? But don’t worry, the painting returned to the American motherland. Today, the painting can be found in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent exhibition, America’s Presidents. You can read about the NPG’s restoration efforts here.

Did you know…? Stuart also made several copies of this portrait, including one that ended up in the White House. That version was nearly lost to history when the British set the White House ablaze during the War of 1812. However, First Lady Dolley Madison insisted on saving the portrait, and refused to leave the property until it was in safekeeping. This wasn’t a manner of simply unhooking a piece of picture wire from a nail however: the eight-foot-tall painting was bolted to a wall, so Madison had her servants break the frame instead and remove the canvas that way. She ordered its caretakers, Jacob Barker and Robert G.L. De Peyster of New York, to destroy the painting before ever allowing it to fall into British hands. The painting still resides at the White House today.

Did you know…? Gilbert painted another, earlier portrait of George Washington, called the Athenaeum portrait. Even if you’re no student of art history, you’re likely familiar with it: it served as the basis for the engraving of Washington still pictured on the one-dollar bill.

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