As the title "Father of His Country" suggests, George Washington had some heavy loads to carry. In this role, he was enormously assisted by the artists of his time, who were more than willing to turn him into a symbol of all the virtues associated with the newly won democracy.
On the occasion of the opening of the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall this July 4, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has inaugurated a special series of exhibitions that will run through 2005 — its 200th anniversary and the year of the scheduled opening of its expansive addition, the Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building.
The first in the series, "George Washington: Picturing a Legend," has been drawn largely from the academy’s permanent collection and details a variety of images of the president in paintings, drawings, sculpture, memorabilia and ephemera. It runs through Sept. 7.
These works not only captured the popular imagination and made Washington the most famous American of his time, but they are served to set, as the museum notes, as "cultural benchmarks against which to measure patriotism, military heroism and model citizenship from the 18th century to the present day."
The ideals ascribed to Washington were those of "courage, charisma and leadership." There were certainly enough raw materials for artists to work from, as Washington has been universally regarded as the superhero of the American Revolution.
In some pieces, Washington is portrayed as the type of guy who, as a solider, flat-out enjoyed his role. Others represent the attempt by some to use the power of the president’s image for their own political gains. Those aims were to secure the newly won freedom, maintain the revolutionary ideals and stifle dissent by cloaking the republic in all sorts of virtues. Washington was just the hero to fill the bill. Even Thomas Jefferson came under his spell, and noted the president always appeared "easy, erect and noble."
Washington wrote after his first engagement in the American Revolution, "I heard the bullet’s whistle and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound." Further reveling in his military career, Washington, leading an infantry charge on horseback, was heard to shout, "It is a fine fox chase, my boys."
The show includes two of the most famous Washington portraits: George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale and George Washington (The Lansdowne Portrait) by Gilbert Stuart.
The Peale painting was begun at Valley Forge, continued at Fort Monmouth and finally finished in Philadelphia. It was commissioned to celebrate the victories at Trenton and Princeton and includes the broad blue ribbon Washington wore as commander in chief to identify himself as he passed through picket lines during battle. The work was immediately proclaimed a masterpiece, giving rise to a cottage industry of producing duplicates. Peale and his brother, James, made at least 25 copies for clients at home and abroad. By this time, Washington was in favor on the continent and Peale’s classical approach appealed to the European sensibility. At that time, the Peales and the Europeans adhered to the tradition that valued above all "historical and literary themes with political and moral messages."
Stuart’s portrait was modeled after the academic tradition of state portraits and even used the poses from Rigaud’s rendering of Louis XIV. In fact, there was also a stand-in for Washington’s body — William Moore Smith, the provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Washington’s face radiates energy that stands out from the rather static canvas, as it was the only feature where Stuart used the real model.
At the time, President Washington had a great deal on his mind, but Stuart allowed no concerns to creep into the painting. In fact, Stuart also took care to "fix" ill-fitting false teeth, cover over the marks of smallpox and paint the eyes a much darker blue than they were. According to Stuart, "in a hundred years, they will have faded to the right color."
To a generation of a certain age in the United States, the image of Washington was front and center above the blackboard in school. His face came to symbolize not just a man, but an icon that represented the nobility of the United States. Today, most of our information comes from television, a medium most suited for imagery and symbolism. Thus, our wars have nicknames, our president often stands in front of a curtain signed with the latest catchphrase, and the stars and stripes have taken on a reverential status. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
George Washington: Picturing a Legend
Through Sept. 7
of the Fine Arts
118 N. Broad St.
$8 adults; $7 seniors and students; $5 for 18-under; free for 5-under and members