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What did George Washington Really Look Like?

Gilbert Stuart was trained in England and Ireland in the academic style and as exemplified in this portrait of Washington, he introduced a looser, more painterly style to American portraits. He left Dublin, Ireland in 1793 with the sole intention of “painting the first president of the United States.” With a letter of introduction from Chief Justice John Jay, Stuart got his opportunity–Washington sat for him in 1795-96. The portrait was done from life, and knowing that Stuart had an extraordinary ability to capture likenesses, and a gift for capturing the character of his sitter through observation and conversation, we can feel confident that the painting accurately represent's America's first president.

In fact, Stuart painted the first five presidents of the new nation from life. He was not only a skilled artist, but also a shrewd businessman. He made many copies of his presidential paintings, especially those of George Washington, to sell to eager patrons. Stuart reportedly told a friend, “I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone.” It's the American way!

Over the years, Stuart completed over one hundred portraits of Washington, based on the 1795-96 portrait from which this copy was made (ca. 1821). The work is oil on wood, approximately, 26" x 21" and is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., (photo is public domain). It was first owned by Colonel George Gibbs of Astoria, New York.

Happy 4th of July everyone!

Source: National Gallery of Art

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