George Washington's cultural legacy
George Washington sat for at least 28 different portraits. As he became one of the best-known men in the world, he was increasingly in demand as a subject and though the process of "sitting‚" was uncomfortable for him, he recognized the importance of paintings—and by extension, engravings, etchings, woodcuts and mezzotints—to his new republic. In the delightful The Painter's Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art, Hugh Howard develops the idea of Washington as a patron of the arts and examines how art and the painting of portraits developed in the United States.
Howard first introduces us to two artists who never painted Washington, Benjamin West and John Smibert, but who were crucial influences on those who did. However, it is Washington portraitists Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, Edward Savage and Gilbert Stuart who are among Howard's main interests. With quiet authority, he relates their quite different life stories and their struggles to reconcile their passion for painting with the necessity of earning a living. Their interactions with Washington and their approaches to him as a subject are told with verve and an intimacy that makes their personalities come alive on the page. Stuart's work is the best known to us today, especially his 1796 portrait of Washington, which is regarded as the best—and is reproduced on our dollar bill. Unlike Peale and Trumbull, who served in the military during the American Revolution, Stuart was not caught up in the cause. He left for London in 1775, returning in 1793 with a plan to paint a portrait of Washington that would make him a fortune and ease his persistent financial woes.
Howard also shows how during Washington's lifetime America changed from a group of colonies with little artistic culture to a new nation with art displayed in public buildings and galleries. As a much-painted cultural icon, Washington played a large role in those changes. "He was," as Howard notes, "a man who always agreed, admittedly with an air of resignation, to sit for yet another portrait."
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.