The Joy of Museums

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“George Washington” Lansdowne Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Lansdowne portrait, 1796)

This portrait of “George Washington” also known as the Lansdowne Portrait, is an iconic portrait of the first President of the United States. The portrait was painted from life and shows Washington at 64 years of age renouncing a third term as U.S. President. Replicas of this original, painted by Stuart are on display in the White House, and a number of other national institutions.

This portrait was commissioned by one of the wealthiest men in the U.S., at the time, and was given to the British Prime Minister, who subsequently became the first Marquess of Lansdowne. It was a gift of appreciation, as he had supported the independence of the colonies the in Parliament and he succeeded in securing peace with America during his term as Prime Minister of Great Britain. In 2001, it was purchased for $20 million and returned to the U.S.

The painting is full of ancient and contemporary symbolism, including:

  • An outstretched hand held up with oratorical symbolism.
  • A row of  Doric columns referencing ancient republics and democracies.
  • Washington’s black velvet suit is not ornate and not royal.
  • The sword 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 that war was giving way to the peace and prosperity.
  • The medallion at the top of the chair shows the colours of the American flag.
  • On the table are books referencing the Federalist Papers and Journal of Congress.
  • Another set books are under the table. The three to the right are General Orders, American Revolution, and Constitutional By-laws, 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 table’s leg is shaped like a fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of power and authority or imperium.
  • On the far left of the table is a silver inkwell, emblazed with George Washington’s coat of arms.
  • A white quill rests upon silver dogs, ancient symbols of loyalty.

Gilbert Stuart is considered one of America’s foremost portraitists. His best-known work is the unfinished portrait of George Washington that is sometimes referred to as The Athenaeum. His image of George Washington featured in the painting has appeared on the United States one-dollar bill for more than a century and on various U.S. postage stamps.


Essential Facts:

  • Title:                George Washington, Lansdowne Portrait
  • Artist:              Gilbert Stuart
  • Year:                 1796
  • Medium:          Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions    247.6 × 158.7 cm (97.5 × 62.5 in)
  • Museum:          National Portrait Gallery

Artist Essential Facts:

  • Name:                  Gilbert Charles Stewart
  • Born:                   1755 – Saunderstown, Rhode Island Colony, British America
  • Died:                    1828 (aged 72) – Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
  • Nationality:        American
  • Notable works:
    • George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait) (1796)
    • George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) (1796)
    • George Washington (Vaughan Portrait) (1795)
    • The Skater (1782)
    • Self-Portrait (1778)
    • Catherine Brass Yates (1794)
    • John Jay (1794)
    • John Adams (1824)


“Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”George Washington




Photo Credit: 1)Gilbert Stuart [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons