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Portraits of George Washington
"I SIT LIKE PATIENCE on a monument whilst they are delineating the lines of my face... At first I was as impatient at the request and as restive under the operation as a colt is of the saddle. The next time I submitted very reluctantly, but with less flouncing; now no dray moves more readily to the thill than I do to the painter's chair."
Thus wrote George Washington in 1785 of how accustomed he had become to posing for his portrait. It all started in 1772 when, to please his wife, he posed for Charles Willson Peale in his uniform as colonel in the Virginia militia. From then until 1798, when he sat for his last portrait hardly a year before his death, Washington posed for at least eighteen, and possibly twenty-one, artists. The results were forty-six or more portraits painted from life and about four hundred and fifty copies made by the same artists from their originals.
There was a great demand for Washington portraits. Cities and towns of the new nation, the colleges and universities, prominent people both in America and abroad-all wanted a portrait of the first president. The English peer, the Earl of Buchan, sent the Scotch artist, Archibald Robertson, to the United States especially for that purpose.
Best known of the artists who painted Washington from life were Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull, Joseph Wright, Robert Edge Pina, and the four members of the talented Peale family-Charles Willson, James, Charles Polk, and Rembrandt Peale. All of these artists did two or more portraits at different dates and they were all inclined to idealize the sitter.
Washington's natural dignity and poise are of course apparent in all of the portraits. His fine points were emphasized and any physical blemishes omitted. Gilbert Stuart's unfinished head, which is undoubtedly the best known Washington portrait, is acknowledged to be the most famous picture in American art, It has come to be accepted by the American people as the one and only authentic conception of the first President of the United States.
Of all the Washington portraits there is just one that approximates a photograph showing him as he actually appeared in the flesh . This little-known canvas was painted for the Masonic Lodge at Alexandria, Virginia, of which Washington was charter Worshipful Master. It still hangs in the lodge rooms and is carefully preserved as are other Washington heirlooms there.
In 1793 the lodge requested the privilege of having a portrait painted. It was granted and William Williams, a native New York artist, was engaged to paint it and instructed to "paint him as he is." So, although the portrait is rather primitive, it is a treasure of great historical significance. The smallpox scars and the disfiguring mark on his left cheek where a wen had been removed by a surgeon's knife are all clearly delineated. There is a mole under his right ear. But even in this canvas the great and commanding personality of the man render mere surface blemishes unimportant.