Case Study    

Thomas Sully's

"Portrait of George Washington"

Before Treatment
  "The Athenaeum Portrait"  

Gilbert Stuart


"The Athenaeum Portrait"
Gilbert Stuart "Portrait of George Washington" 1796
The National Portrait Gallery/The Museum of Fine Arts
Washington, D.C./Boston, Massachusetts

At the time Gilbert Stuart painted the portraits of George and Martha Washington, he was America's foremost portraitist. He was, in effect, the unofficial painter to the new nation. (9) He portrayed the leading political figures and the wealthy citizens of his time. His subjects included James Monroe, James Madison, and John Adams. Born in Rhode Island, Stuart initially studied with Benjamin West in London. It is not surprising that Sully also desired to follow these artistic footsteps. Stuart returned to the United States in 1792 and established studios in both Philadelphia and Washington. He also worked in New York before permanently settling in Boston in 1805.
The above image (H. 48" X W. 37") was commissioned by Washington along with a pendant portrait of his wife, Martha. The painting is referred to as the "Athenaeum Portrait" for it hung in the Boston Athenaeum from 1831 until it was loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and eventually sold to the museum and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., in 1980.
The portrait was painted in Germantown, just outside of Philadelphia, in 1796. Stuart deliberately left the painting unfinished. Washington's popularity as a national hero escalated after his death in 1799, and Stuart used the painting as a model for numerous replicas. Stuart referred to the image as his "hundred dollar bill," the price he charged for a copy. Over 60 copies survive, and the portrait ultimately became the source for the face of Washington (in reverse) on the one-dollar bill. (9) The painting must have hung for many years in an oval frame for today the background gesso tone indicates this format.

Detail "The Athenaeum Portrait"

Sully must have seen this portrait and others when he visited and worked with Stuart in 1807. Realizing there was a national market for the image, Sully may have made a study for himself. His Register not only records the treated painting, but numerous other Washington images after Stuart. The first was begun August 25, 1807, just one month after his stay with Stuart. (10)
(9) This review is drawn from Museum of Fine Art, Boston's web site, (accessed 5 Dec. 2006).
(10) Edward Biddle and Mantle Fielding, The life and Works of Thomas Sully, (New York, N.Y.: Kennedy Graphics, 1970. Reprinted from the 1921 First Edition), Entry Number 1892, 310.
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