Portrait of George Washington

Thomas Sully, Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799),
c. 1820,
oil on canvas
The Minneapolis Institute of Art


Perhaps you recognized the man in this picture the moment you saw it. What did you see that told you who he was?

Take a step back in time to the United States of America of the 1820s, when this picture was painted. Almost fifty years had passed since the first shot of independence was fired. The tense years after the war, when it seemed the states could not agree on anything, were history. Many Americans of the day believed that the success of their new nation was due to the leadership of one man. George Washington was more than a general and a politician. He had become a symbol of the nation.

How does an artist put all that in a picture?



Is that what George Washington really looked like?

Since there were no photographs in George Washington’s day, we cannot know exactly what he looked like. He had “a large and straight nose,” wrote someone who knew him in 1760. “His face is long rather than broad, with high round cheekbones. His mouth is large and generally firmly closed.” Do you think the artist has successfully captured those details in this picture?

In the days before cameras, people commonly called upon artists to create a “likeness” of themselves or someone they wanted to honor. But professional artists did not usually paint with the person in front of them the whole time. They would spend a session or two working on the face, and perhaps hands, of their subject. The rest of the time they would work in their studios from memory or sketches. They might even ask a friend to pose for the body. Historians have found a few different stories about whose body is portrayed here!

Several painters had the chance to paint George Washington from life. He looks slightly different in all of them. Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of the first president became especially well known. They were admired not just because they showed what he looked like, but because they gave a sense of his personality as well. This picture is a copy of one of those portraits. How would you describe Washington’s personality?

Hiram Powers based this sculpture on one made by a French artist. Jean-Antoine Houdon had covered the president’s face with plaster to get an exact likeness. But how realistic are the clothes?


What makes this portrait symbolic?


(detail) Thomas Sully, Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799),
c. 1820,
oil on canvas
The Minneapolis Institute of Art
The furniture, decorated with national symbols like the eagle, probably never really existed.
At first glance, this portrait seems to be a simple record of George Washington’s appearance. But many details are more important for the ideas they symbolize than as a record of history. Indeed, some things in the picture never existed. The furniture, decorated with national symbols like the eagle, was probably invented by the artist.

The black velvet suit Washington wears is also symbolic. As the first president of a modern democracy, Washington had to decide how such a leader should dress. Would it be luxurious robes and crowns, like European kings and queens? Or the military uniform he wore as commander-in-chief? Washington chose a black suit to show that he was a different kind of leader an ordinary citizen elected by the people.

The sword at Washington’s waist reminds us that he was a military leader. But the quill pen standing in the silver inkwell on the table is most powerful here. The pen, the books on the floor, and the paper on the table symbolize the laws of the new nation. The laws, the painting tells us, will last longer than the rule of one man in this new country.

Even the weather in the distant sky is symbolic. A faint rainbow appears beside lingering dark clouds, the calm after a storm. For citizens of the young United States, George Washington’s presidency gave hope for a peaceful future after the turmoil of creating a nation.

(detail) Thomas Sully, Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799),
c. 1820,
oil on canvas
The Minneapolis Institute of Art
A ceremonial sword is a reminder of the president’s role as commander-in-chief.

(detail) Thomas Sully, Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799),
c. 1820,
oil on canvas
The Minneapolis Institute of Art
Books, a quill pen in an ink well, and an open document symbolize the laws of the nation.


Why would an artist copy someone else’s picture?

Philadelphia artist Thomas Sully, which once owned the painting, made his living by painting portraits. He completed more than 2000 pictures in his lifetime. Usually the people in his pictures sat for him in person as he sketched even the young Queen Victoria of England.

This job was different. George Washington had been dead for more than 20 years. For this picture Sully copied the work of another artist, Gilbert Stuart. Stuart had painted Washington from life when he was still president. The president disliked posing for portraits. By the end of his presidency few artists had the chance to paint him from life.

Gilbert Stuart had many requests to paint copies of his paintings of George Washington for the new government buildings being built in the young nation. Stuart hoped to make his fortune selling these replicas. Indeed, more people wanted pictures than Stuart could provide. Other artists, such as Thomas Sully, were happy to take the commissions.

Did Gilbert Stuart mind that Thomas Sully copied his picture? Probably not. European artists of the time often made nearly exact copies of other people’s pictures, particularly those of government or church leaders. But artists also looked at other pictures to get ideas for portraits of their own. Like many artists, Gilbert Stuart had a collection of prints based on paintings by European artists. Art historians have found the same details–a column with curtains, a desk and chair, books on the floor, and sky in the background in a French picture from 1723.

You can see the painting Thomas Sully copied at the website of the New York Public Library which owns the picture.

Self-Portrait, c. 1740
Francesco de Mura
Oil on canvas
Artists commonly borrowed ideas from other works of art. What does this Italian portrait have in common with the portrait of George Washington?

Related activities

Pick from Portraits of the Past

18th-century painters kept collections of pictures by other artists to get ideas for their own work. Look for portraits on Mia’s website or in magazines. What details would you borrow for a portrait of your friend? Your school principal? Today’s president of the United States? Sharpen your pencils and try out your ideas.


Compare Another Portrait of George Washington

Thomas Sully based this portrait on a similar one by Gilbert Stuart. Learn more about that artist and his portraits of George Washington online at George Washington: A National Treasure. What do the portraits have in common? How are they different?