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George Washington

Artist: Gilbert Stuart
Created: 1795
Dimensions (cm): 64.1 x 76.8
Format: Oil on canvas
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

This is quite possibly the single most famous piece of American art. It has become, in a sense, the official national portrait of George Washington.

Stuart had already painted two portraits of Washington when, in 1796, Washington's wife, Martha, personally requested a third, along with a companion portrait of herself. They were to be hung in the Washingtons' home in Fairfax, Virginia, although he never did deliver them. In fact, he did not even finish the portrait of George, instead only completing the bust portion and keeping that in his studio as a reference for the numerous portraits of the president ordered in ensuing years. His decision was well-timed too, as Washington would die in under 3 years, in 1799, and this work proved quite useful. In his lifetime, Stuart produced no less than 114 portraits of Washington, over sixty of which were based on this unfinished piece.

Stuart's emphasis here, as in all his portrait work, is on the sitter's facial features, glance, expression, and nothing else. He saw other aspects often focused on by portrait artists, such as detailed settings, accessories, and clothes, as unimportant compared to the task of capturing a lifelike image of the sitter's face. He concerned himself only with what he deemed most crucial. It is appropriate, then, that his masterpiece would really contain no other significant details. In simplicity of construction, Stuart succeeded. What he captured of Washington in this portrait has been hailed as the quintessential qualities of the first president of the United States.


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