Library Projects Assistant
About the Lecture
As president, George Washington faced the challenge of steering between the pomp and circumstance expected of heads of state and the trappings of tyranny feared by many. The primary models available to Americans in 1789 were the monarchs of Britain (and to a lesser degree, France). This lecture examines the traditional iconography and functions of state portraiture in relation to Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 “Lansdowne portrait” of Washington. Although Stuart skillfully adapted the visual elements of state portraiture to the republican context, his magisterial composition lacks the underlying raison d’etre of the genre: it was not initiated by the head of state as an assertion of legitimacy and authority. Rather, it was commissioned by a private American citizen as a private gift to an English noble, and it was not completed until four months before the end of Washington’s presidency, far too late to have served in statecraft; moreover, it was not even generally known in America until the appearance of an engraved version, a month after Washington’s death.
By conspicuously eschewing an official portrait, Washington left his countrymen with a choice of likenesses – competing visions of a republican chief executive. The templates that we have for envisioning him – as the embodiment of America’s founding ideals – are thus the result not of a top-down, authoritarian dictate – but rather a complex interplay of artistic talents, entrepreneurship, personal connections, consumer preferences, and much more, which together have made our image of Washington truly the “people’s choice.”
The absence of an officially sanctioned portrait has arguably kept Washington’s image dynamic and relevant, subject to continual variation as well as seemingly endless repetition. Two centuries of what in modern jargon we might call “crowd sourcing,” has made his the “face of the nation” far more effectively than any official state portrait of his crowned precursors.
About Susan P. Schoelwer
As Mount Vernon’s Robert H. Smith Senior Curator, Susan P. Schoelwer has overseen the refurnishing and reinterpretation of the Mansion’s Blue, Chintz, and New Rooms, as well as the Greenhouse Slave Quarters. She also directed the organization of several special exhibitions, including the current Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (2016-2019) and Gardens and Groves: George Washington’s Landscapes at Mount Vernon (2014), and edited the accompanying publications. Prior to coming to Mount Vernon in 2010, Dr. Schoelwer headed the museum collections at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. She holds a doctorate in American Studies from Yale University, a master of arts from the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, and a bachelor of arts in History from the University of Notre Dame.