When Painting George Washington Was a Cottage Industry

Painting portraits of the nation’s first president was a full-time industry for countless artists for many years.

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, (ca. 1795). (Photo: Keno Auctions)
Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, (ca. 1795). (Photo: Keno Auctions) Photo: Keno Auctions

Nowadays, when American history scholars and the general public have been surveyed about who is or was our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln tops the list. Held the country together. Ended slavery. Won the Civil War. Before the adoration of Lincoln, however, there was the cult of George Washington. Painting portraits of the nation’s first president was a full-time industry for countless artists for many years. Those paintings occasionally show up for sale in galleries and auctions, and recently two such works have hit the block.

A Gilbert Stuart called Nicklin Portrait of George Washington (Vaughan Portrait) (estimate $150,000-250,000) brought $187,500 (including buyer’s premium) at a January 31 sale at Keno Auction. The previous week, Christie’s offered but found no buyers for an 1854 three-by-four foot oil George Washington at Valley Forge by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1813-1884), estimate $250,000-500,000, at a January 22 American Furniture and Decorative Arts sale.

The price of the Stuart portrait might have been held down by the fact of the physical canvas having been trimmed at some point during the 1840s, turning it into an oval shape–perhaps to fit a particular frame or because “portal-style” paintings were in vogue at the time–from its original rectangle. “You have to take that into consideration,” said Leigh Keno, the auction house’s founder.

Neither portrait broke artistic ground, but they do recall a time when George Washington portraits were a cottage industry among artists well known and not.

George Washington “was a rock-star during his life,” said Andrew Holter, head of the department of American furniture and decorative arts at Christie’s. “The nation revered and celebrated him and it would not be unusual to have a painting or print of him hanging on the wall.” And not just during his lifetime but throughout the 19th century. It was mid-century, for instance, when Emanuel Leutze earned lasting fame for his 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware, which sold for the then-enormous price of $10,000, enough to prompt the artist to produce two more versions, one of which was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1897.

George Washington is featured on 146 items (paintings, sculptures, prints and images on decorative objects) at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the museum’s database lists 1,300 entries of Washington-related imagery, according to Sue Garton, data administrator at the museum.

A number of Washington portraits have become quite expensive. Gilbert Stuart’s highest public sale price was $8.136 million (estimate $10-15 million) for a 1797 Washington portrait purchased in 2005 at Sotheby’s by the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. The highest price, for a 1779 George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) painting, is an 8’ tall portrait of the nation’s first president, which sold at Christie’s in 2006 for $21.29 million (estimate $10-15 million).

Stuart and Peale were the pre-eminent artists in the realm of Washington portraiture, producing many that were sold for $100 apiece. Born in Rhode Island, Stuart (1755–1828) left his native land in 1777 to study and set up a professional studio in, first, London and later Ireland. However, inspired by the American Revolutionary, he returned in 1793. Within two years, Stuart had back orders of 39 Washington portraits that he needed to complete. The exact number of portraits Stuart made of the president is a matter of informed speculation–Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, curators of a Gilbert Stuart exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 2004-05, note in a catalogue essay that the artist made more than 90 portraits of the first president–in part because the artist never signed his paintings. Perhaps, his most enduring image is an unfinished portrait that became the model for the dollar bill.

Washington actually posed for Stuart and for possibly 15-20 other portraitists, but almost all of the later painters had to work from other artists’ images, which may explain why portraits of the same man may look so different. Perhaps, it is just as well. Washington was not an easy sitter. Stuart himself wrote that “a vacuity spread over [Washington’s] countenance” as soon as Washington began to pose, and the artist had to keep up a steady patter of conversation to keep him relatively alert.

When Painting George Washington Was a Cottage Industry