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Gilbert Stuart George Washington (The Gibbs-Channing-Avery Portrait)
The Gibbs-Channing-Avery Portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1795 is the first portrait the artist painted of the first President of the United States. When Washington first sat for the artist he was in his mid-sixties and close to the end of his second term in office. Like many portraitists of his day, Stuart believed that a close study of the outward appearance of his sitters could reveal a great deal about the inner complexities of his subjects. A notoriously difficult man to convince to shed his public personae, Stuart drew on his great powers as a conversationist to lure the Washington out of his comfort zone so the artist could best articulate his external image. From the outset Stuart's Washington portraits were an immense success, basing much of his economic success from that point onwards on the reproductions he made from the Athenaeum portrait, which still graces the American one-dollar bill to this day.
Born in Newport, Rhode Island, Stuart was the son of a Scottish immigrant who made his living by grinding snuff, an important commodity in colonial America. A typical early-American success story, the artist first became an apprentice and craftsman painter, marking himself out as a man with a curious talent for securing the commission of prominent clients. His ability to charm clients and put them at ease allowed Stuart to reveal and depict a sense of their true personality, which, on the basis of a popular theory called physiognomy, the artist felt was reflected in the physical characteristics of his sitters. For Stuart, the features of Washington suggested a passionate man who was at ease in the conditions of his time and place in history.
Journeying to England and Ireland in the early 1790s, Stuart returned to America in 1793 and went straight to Philadelphia, the largest city and the temporary capital of the new nation, with the intention of obtaining a commission to paint the president. It was the artist's intention to secure the commission of a man so privileged as to ensure a wealth of other high-profile clients would follow.
Before the era of mass reproduction, a painter could make a very comfortable living making copies of his original works, either by his own hand or by means of engravings that he had secured copyright. Stuart knew that many people in America and abroad wanted to have a portrait of George Washington and he was right – his Washington portraits are now the most ubiquitous images in circulation of the first President and are the visual means by which future generations have envisioned his presence.
- Gilbert Stuart George Washington Painting Has Become Part Of The National Consciousness
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