Early 20th Century Oil-on-Canvas George Washington Athenaeum Study
A striking early 20th century oil-on-canvas after Gilbert Stuart's 1796 famed Athenaeum portrait of our founding father and first president George Washington. Painted in the Boston Athenaeum, which owned the original Stuart painting for over 150 years, this is a direct study of the original, and is housed in its period hand-carved, gilt-wood frame. Although unsigned, the painting is an impeccably executed study, matching the tone, brushwork, and overall spirit of the original in impressive fashion, and the obvious product of an artist with great skill.
This study was painted during a period of time when the American pubic craved depictions of Washington’s likeness. Spurred on by the nation's sesquicentennial, Americans were actively engaged in re-crafting our national story and identity. Given Washington’s popularity and importance to our nation’s freedom and foundation, images of our first President, like this oil study of Gilbert’s famous portrait, were in high demand.
The original portrait was painted by colonial painter Gilbert Stuart, and was his second portrait of Washington. Washington first sat for the artist in 1795 and the resulting oil portrait, nicknamed the Vaughan portrait, was widely successful. In the summer of 1796, after seeing Stuart’s first oil portrait of Washington, Martha Washington commissioned a pair of portraits of herself and the president from Stuart, which she planned to display at Mount Vernon.
The president, who famously abhorred sitting for portraits, didn’t fare well during this second sitting with Stuart. The artist noted, “When I painted him, 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.” Nevertheless, the portrait shows none of Washington’s annoyance or discomfort. Rather, it is Washington’s direct and purposeful gaze which makes this depiction so striking. Stuart painted a dignified leader, bathed in a warm glow. Although this is only a head-and-shoulder view, the artist managed to convey Washington’s impressive six-foot-two-inch frame and reserved, stately bearing.
The resulting portrait was Stuart’s favorite image. As a result, and to Martha’s dismay, he purposely left the original painting unfinished so that he could use it as a model for later paintings. The painting has since become one of the most celebrated paintings of Washington ever painted. The painting served as the basis for the engraving on the one-dollar bill. John Neal, an early nineteenth-century writer and art critic, wrote, “Though a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it; for, the only idea that we now have of George Washington, is associated with Stuart’s Washington.”
The portraits of Martha and George are known as the “Athenaeum” images because the Boston Athenaeum library acquired them after Stuart’s death in 1828. The portrait remained at the Athenaeum for more than 150 years. It is now jointly co-owned by the National Portrait Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
This 20th century study of Stuart’s most famous portrait is in excellent condition. Subtle darkening to the canvas and a white paint stain in upper right. The frame, which is original to the painting, is a beautiful hand-carved gilt-wood construction, with an oval porthole opening and square frame.