Gilbert Stuart: Views of George Washington A new exhibit in Washington, D.C., features portraits by Gilbert Stuart, best known for creating the painting of George Washington from which the image on the dollar is taken. Historian Gordon Wood and other experts talk about how Washington was depicted.
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Gilbert Stuart: Views of George Washington

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Gilbert Stuart: Views of George Washington

Gilbert Stuart: Views of George Washington

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George Washington. We all know what he looked like: a stern expression, a big nose, hair tied back with a black ribbon in the style of the day. We all carry his portrait with us on the dollar bill. In 1796, American artist Gilbert Stuart painted the portrait from which the likeness on the dollar is taken. Until the end of July, you can see the original at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the National Portrait Gallery has gathered a group of Stuart portraits, including 13 of Washington; some painted from life, some copied by Stuart from his own originals, copied again and again and again, even after President Washington's death.

Surrounded by likenesses of the father of our country looking down, we asked historian Gordon Wood of Brown University if all those faces might show us the real George Washington.

Mr. GORDON WOOD (Brown University): I think he becomes much more of a monument in these portraits and on the dollar bill and more of a marble-type character that makes him not very accessible to ordinary people. If Stuart had painted him as a much younger man, I think we might have had a very different image of Washington. He was a very athletic, tall, muscular man. He would--he might have made a great linebacker today. I mean, he was a real athlete.

WERTHEIMER: And a good dancer, and much admired by the ladies of the day. But whatever he may have looked like really, our idea of George Washington is the one preserved by Gilbert Stuart in that portrait, called the Athenaeum portrait after the museum in Boston where the picture was sent after Gilbert Stuart died. The Athenaeum portrait was ordered by Martha Washington, who wanted a pair. Though Washington sat for the portraits in Philadelphia--there was no Washington, DC, yet--Stuart just painted their heads on big canvases that left room for the rest of them. Ellen Miles is the curator of the National Portrait Gallery exhibit.

Ms. ELLEN MILES (Washington Exhibit Curator): When Stuart completed the portrait of George Washington, he realized that he had succeeded in getting the look that he wanted--the turn of the head, the--whatever he was after. And so he asked Washington if he could keep these portraits and make the replicas that he had commissions for, and the story is that Washington said, `Keep them as long as you like, Mr. Stuart.' And the portraits remained unfinished, and Stuart kept them in his studio for the rest of his life.

WERTHEIMER: Gilbert Stuart painted somewhere around a hundred portraits of the first president over 30 years, and made a decent living selling them. We asked everyone we talked to if they had a favorite. Ellen Miles picked the earliest portrait, called the Vaughan portrait, again after the owner of the picture.

Ms. MILES: If you look at other portraits of Washington by other painters, that more square face and thinner face is more typical of what Washington looked like at this time.

WERTHEIMER: It's elegant looking. I mean, I must say I like it better than the kind of doughy-faced version of Washington that is the Athenaeum portrait, where he's just--his cheeks are rounder and his lower part of his face doesn't look as angular.

Ms. MILES: And the story that even Stuart told was that the difference is that this portrait was painted before Washington got a new set of false teeth, which tended to bulge out the lower part of his face, around his mouth. And I think that you can see that in that later portrait.

WERTHEIMER: The elegant Vaughan portrait seems more like the Washington I've read about, the leader so loved and admired in his own time. Looking into his very strong face, I can imagine the general, the imposing man, and the little light in his eyes hints at whatever it was that made his soldiers follow him in a war against one of the most powerful nations in the world. It's difficult for us to imagine in these media-saturated says that most of the citizens of the new country had never seen the president. Marc Pachter is director of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

Mr. MARC PACHTER (Director, National Portrait Gallery): You barely knew what your president looked like. So actually, the extraordinary role of the portraitist was everything that today we see as camera, we see as television. We really take for granted the fact that we can know, up until the point of exhaustion, sometimes to the point of nausea, what those important figures in our society look like. They didn't have a clue.

WERTHEIMER: Pachter's pick of the portraits in this exhibit is the "Lansdowne portrait," a very impressive full-length portrait of Washington standing in his plain black velvet suit in a setting with columns and clouds, red velvet and gilded furniture; basically a state portrait.

Mr. PACHTER: What Stuart is doing there is telling us what a president looks like. Nowhere in the world had there ever been the experience of a president

of this sort. So he is standing there with authority. He's standing in the context of a scene as grand as anything in Europe that represents continuity and order, but he's dressed like a simple citizen. So I don't think there's another painting ever done in America that is as important to setting the terms of our national life as the "Lansdowne portrait" by Gilbert Stuart.

WERTHEIMER: The "Lansdowne" is also the favorite of historian Gordon Wood. He notes that at the end of the Revolutionary War, General Washington shocked the world by quietly retiring to Mt. Vernon, by not assuming, as generals often do, that `To the victor belongs the whole country.' He had to be talked out of retirement to serve as president. After two terms, he retired again. That is the Washington, according to Gordon Wood, in these Gilbert Stuart portraits; the all-important father of his country, but not its king.

Mr. WOOD: He sat for these portraits because he knew that his image would act as a unifying force in the country, that portraits would be displayed in every public arena, he hoped. He knew that the country needed this unifying image.

WERTHEIMER: The Gilbert Stuart exhibition is organized by the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and presented in Washington by the National Gallery of Art. There are many other Stuart portraits in the show, including John and Abigail Adams and James and Dolley Madison. And there is a wonderful picture of President John Adams in great old age, which would be worth the price of admission, except, of course, this is the Smithsonian and admission is free.

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