Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington (1796) is rife with symbolism absent from most of Stuart’s other portraits of Washington, which is made possible through the use of displaying Washington’s entire figure inside his presidential office. The life-size (8 by 5 feet) portrait presents the first president renouncing a third-term, which is significant because it defines American succession of leadership in contrast to other heads-of-state at the time that typically remained in power for life. The open window behind Washington shows dark clouds giving way to a rainbow, and additional elements such as Washington’s decorative (as opposed to militaristic) sword favors diplomacy over force. As a commissioned work, the portrait reveals how early leadership wished to convey the values of the newly formed the United States, including the value of succession of leadership, and diplomacy.
Gilbert Stuart is a well-known artist whose most artistic works have made him be considered as America`s leading portraitists. His work mainly concentrated on the American presidents with the Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington (1796) being one of his most renowned portraits. Gilbert Stuart was born in Stewart in 1755 and died in 1828 (27). Through his career, Gilbert Stuart produced portraits of more than one thousand people counting the first six presidents of America. Gilbert possessed natural talent in painting and used it as a passion in representing the likeness of humans and their character (28). The legacy of his work in art has been defined by the element of contradiction in most of his works. Just like many artists of his time, Gilbert had many portraits that he did not finish although the portraits that he finished have been considered masterpieces up-to-date. Gilbert was sanctimonious and this was one of the main major aspects that led to the production of renowned portraits. Unlike most artists of his time such as John Singleton and Benjamin West, Gilbert maintained that the success of his work was not in any way associated with the character of the sitter but was largely based on his abilities as an artist.
In the portrait, George Washington, the first president of America poses in full posture with some few objects next to him. Many of the objects that have been included in the portrait did not exist at the time but Gilbert chose them in conveying specific ideas to the audience. The objects that surround George Washington serve as figurative symbols of the public life of the president and his dedication to serving the country being the first president. The rainbow on the background of the portrait has been used to symbolize that the storms that the country was facing had faded away and that a new dawn was being welcomed. George Washington’s position of his hand also is meant to show how the president had made several milestones in the service for his country. The portrait was made a time when America was struggling in getting to its feet after independence and at the time, George Washington had made several strides in helping the American people (59). This was the last year of his term as a president, and his standing position shows that despite the challenges that his country had faced, George Washington had worked hard in serving the Americans. According to history, George Washington disliked posing for pictures and by Gilbert creating a portrait showing him posting is an indication that the president was celebrating his life of service for the Americans.
The Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington (1796) is oil on canvas portrait showing a full posture of the first president of America, George Washington. The portrait has been made from canvas and the choice of colors on which it has been made can be considered effective. One of the most effective design elements that have been employed by Gilbert is the choice of colors for the portrait. George has been depicted wearing a black coat and a white shirt and black shoes. The colors of his clothes resonate with the background that has red clothing, the walls, and the outside of the room from which George is standing. The carpet on which George is standing has also been used by Gilbert in showing authority, which also gets along with the table and the pen at the background. Gilbert has ensured that George Washington is the focus and the background provides support to the main theme of the portrait, which was to show the authority of the president.
Gilbert Stuart has employed the grand manner of style in the portrait of George Washington. At the verge of the Revolutionary War, Gilbert sailed to Europe where he stayed for 18 years and returned to America believed that by creating portraits of George Washington, he would be in a position to sell them and clear his debts. His long stay in Europe made him acquire the grand manner stylistic features of painting, which he largely used in the Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington (339-360). Given the training that he had acquired in Europe, he felt that a full-length portrait would be most effective when working on the portrait. In this particular portrait, Gilbert did not employ the stylistic features employed by previous artists such as Charles Peale and John Trumbull where they emphasized George Washington`s position as an officer in the army, Gilbert took a different turn and emphasized his position as a commander in chief of the civilians. In the portrait, George is not sitting on a throne and is not holding a scepter and is wearing a black suit, which was similar to the one he always wore during public functions. The pose of his right arm is declamatory while his left hand is grasping a ceremonial sword other than a war sword, which is an indication of peace.
Besides the architectural setting, other stylistic features within the portrait have transformed the portrait to an official piece of art showing the elements of the first president of America. The chair on the right is neo-classical shows some traces of the Great Seal while the medallion has been divided twice with alternation of red and white stripes. On the table, there are two eagles with each one grasping arrows, which is a symbol of readiness of war (59) There are also three books below the table, which are likely meant to indicate the political and military achievements of the president (71). Analysis of the Grand manner stylistic feature employed by Gilbert shows that he main intention was not to show the likeness of George Washington but to also show the political and aesthetic paraphernalia in the office of the president and the new America.
The Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington is a visual representation of the American politics after its first independence. After the Revolutionary War, America was giving way to a new era of democracy, civilization, and a totally different turn of how people were being ruled. Gilbert Stuart was happy that he had come back to his homeland and felt that the portrait of the first president of America would serve as a symbol for the new turn in which America was turning. Everyone at the time had suffered the loss after the war and needed to have hope for the America`s future (102). In addition to his intent of creating a painting that would attract people and fetch him some good money that would pay off his debts, he saw the opportunity of creating the portrait of the first president as a move that would show his love for the country.
Gilbert Stuart was patriotic and believed that the end of the Revolutionary war would be a new dawn on the American politics. By getting back to his country and creating a portrait of the first president, he felt that the only way that he would show his love for his new country would be using his talent in drawing the first president of America. In addition to his dedication and patriotism for his country, Gilbert Stuart used the portrait in showing how the Americans being led by the first president were welcome to positive change that would help them in attaining their goals after attaining independence. With the very many things that needed to be done, the portrait served the purpose of showing a civilian leader who was dedicated to serving the Americans. The portrait has therefore served a political significance of showing the new era that was brought by George Washington and his role as the first president of the United States of America.
The Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington has several meanings that have been conveyed, which have been conveyed by both Roman and American symbols. The suit that has been worn by George Washington is plain and the sword that he is holding is not military. This is an indication of a democratic government where people were free to make choices about the country that they had wished for. On the background, there is storm clouds and rainbow, which show that the Revolutionary war had given way to peace and tranquility in America. The colors of the medallion on the chair show the American flag, which is an indication of the freedom that America had attained (102). There is a total of five books within the portrait with their titles being, Federalist, Journal of Congress, American Revolution, General Orders, and Constitutional Bylaws. All these books have been used to mean leadership, history, and democracy as some of the most important aspects that George Washington followed in serving the Americans. There are a pen and a paper on the table, which signify the creation of laws. Further analysis of the pen and the paper could also be included by the artist to mean that the making of the law was still in progress and that the authority led by George Washington was committed to making the law that would be for the best for the rest of the Americans (127-132). The table within the portrait has been shaped in an ancient Roman manner, which is a symbol of the power of the President (49) The quill, silver dogs, and the hat symbolizes loyalty of the president for the service of his people. His facial expression is also clenched, which is famous due to his fake teeth. In general, the portrait is considered as the best symbols that could represent George Washington. Having been the first president of America, the portrait has served the meaning of showing how the president had worked hard in serving the Americans.
The Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington was commissioned in 1796 by William Bingham, the senator for Pennsylvania together with his wife, they being one of the wealthiest and most influential families at the time (82). The portrait was given as a gift to William Fitzmaurice who was the first Marquess of Lansdowne. Fitzmaurice was a sympathizer whose support for American independence was undeniable and was successful in ending British colony in America (59). The portrait was therefore presented to him as a show of how grateful America was in his contribution in the attaining of the America`s independence. The stylistic features that have been used by the artist in the portrait show how George Washington was committed to serving his people after gaining independence (193-194). George Washington was a hero and the portrait has served the purpose of showing how he was heroic thus the treasure that has been accorded to his portrait together with the paraphernalia associated with the office of the president at the time.
In summary, Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington is a portrait that presents the first president renouncing a third-term, which is significant because it defines American succession of leadership in contrast to other heads-of-state at the time that typically remained in power for life. The stylistic features and the elements of the portrait have shown how he had welcomed democracy, the rule of law, federalism, and goodwill to all the Americans. With the portrait being made at the end of the Revolutionary war that led to the America gaining independence, Gilbert Stuart has used several symbols such as the rainbow, hat, stormy clouds, books, the black suit, and the table in showing the heroic nature of George Washington as the first president of America.