Gilbert Stuart’s second and most important life portrait of George Washington was an oil painting executed in 1796. Best known as the image on the one-dollar bill, it is considered the most famous painting of the first president. The portrait, which shows the left side of Washington’s face, was painted when the president was 64 years old. It came to be known as the “Athenaeum portrait” because it was acquired by the Boston Athenaeum just after the artist’s death. The Athenaeum owned it for 150 years. (In this and other references, “Athenaeum head,” “Athenaeum Washington,” or “Athenaeum portrait” refer to this original life portrait, today owned jointly by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Two replica portraits owned by the Senate–-one shown here and the one known as the “Pennington Portrait”
–-and all other replicas of the same type are referred to as “Athenaeum type” or “copy or replica of the Athenaeum portrait.”)
The Athenaeum Washington was executed through the intervention of Anne Bingham, wife of Senator William Bingham of Pennsylvania, probably in preparation for a half-length portrait commissioned by her husband. Bingham subsequently changed his mind and ordered a full-length portrait instead–-and a copy for William Petty, Lord Shelburne, the first Marquis of Lansdowne. These full-length “Lansdowne-type” portraits of Washington are now, respectively, in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the National Portrait Gallery.
The Athenaeum head was left unfinished by Stuart, who retained it during his lifetime. He kept the portrait from life in order to make numerous replicas (some 70 in the bust-length format) from it. There were, of course, alterations in the replicas, some subtle and some more pronounced. These might have been due to haste or to other factors not now known. The costume, hardly indicated in the original life portrait, was continually reinvented by the artist.
This particular replica of the Athenaeum portrait, sometimes referred to as the “Chesnut portrait,” was purchased from the artist by Colonel John Chesnut of South Carolina in the late 1790s. Chesnut had served with South Carolina regiments in the American Revolution and was a member of the South Carolina state convention to ratify the federal Constitution. Thomas Chesnut, heir to the original owner, sold the portrait in 1870 to art collector W.W. Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Joint Committee on the Library, in turn, purchased the painting from Corcoran for the United States Capitol in 1876, the nation’s centennial year.
The Chesnut portrait is of both documentary and aesthetic interest. Washington sat for Stuart for the Athenaeum head in April 1796, and he departed Philadelphia at the end of his second term in March 1797. It has been assumed that General Chesnut acquired this replica about the time he sat for Stuart for his own portrait, while on a visit to Philadelphia in 1797-98. Some writers maintain that the president appears older here than in the Athenaeum head. To account for this difference, it has been claimed that the political attacks endured by Washington during his second term aged him, and that Stuart was able to incorporate the change because Washington agreed to another sitting. However, this hypothesis conveniently ignores the very short time thus assumed between the two sittings. It is highly unlikely that the president would have granted a sitting to Stuart in the waning months of his administration, and Stuart did not subsequently visit him at Mt. Vernon.
The difference in appearance may more aptly be called weariness than aging, and it would have been a relatively easy matter for Stuart to alter the portrait to suggest this change, without requiring a sitting. There is a perceptible softening of the modeling, for instance. The president’s eyes seem more shadowed and his face less fleshy–-in short, somewhat gaunt–-despite the apple-red cheeks that Stuart often favored for his sitters. For this replica, Stuart embellished the costume with a fluidly improvised shirtfront, like liquid lace.
Gilbert Stuart is undoubtedly one of America’s greatest portrait painters. Having trained in Europe, he returned to this country with the prospect of greater financial gain. Known for his elegant and fashionable portrait style, he painted war heroes, socialites, and prominent families. But it was George Washington whom he most sought to paint, and it was his Washington portraits that provided him with the greatest financial reward. Other national figures that Stuart recorded on canvas included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.