This tiny copy of Thomas Sully’s oil portrait of Washington, itself taken from the unfinished study by Gilbert Stuart in 1796, is one of the most ubiquitous portraits of the president and would have been instantly recognisable. Copied here by an unknown hand, it was likely worn as a symbol of loyalty and affection by the original owner.

Washington himself approved the original sketch taken of him by Stuart and after it’s execution it served as the model to satisfy the enormous demand for his image, including the likeness reproduced on the one dollar bill. The success of Stuart’s portrait lay in the effective presentation of the president as ‘commoner-statesman’, without reliance on the idiom of royal portraiture. In this context, it relates directly back to the ‘warts and all’ depiction of Oliver Cromwell by the miniaturist Samuel Cooper (1609-72). This earlier portrait, also an unfinished sketch, portrayed Cromwell as head of State and Government, but also as a...

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This tiny copy of Thomas Sully’s oil portrait of Washington, itself taken from the unfinished study by Gilbert Stuart in 1796, is one of the most ubiquitous portraits of the president and would have been instantly recognisable. Copied here by an unknown hand, it was likely worn as a symbol of loyalty and affection by the original owner.

Washington himself approved the original sketch taken of him by Stuart and after it’s execution it served as the model to satisfy the enormous demand for his image, including the likeness reproduced on the one dollar bill. The success of Stuart’s portrait lay in the effective presentation of the president as ‘commoner-statesman’, without reliance on the idiom of royal portraiture. In this context, it relates directly back to the ‘warts and all’ depiction of Oliver Cromwell by the miniaturist Samuel Cooper (1609-72). This earlier portrait, also an unfinished sketch, portrayed Cromwell as head of State and Government, but also as a ‘common man’; elected by his people and not by virtue of his birth and lineage. Both portraits reflect a desire on the part of the sitter to show the viewer a portrait of a man, not an icon.

The original sketch of Washington by Stuart was undertaken in 1796, this particular version known as the ‘Athenaeum’ head.[1] The number of versions taken from this sketch was staggering, with Stuart himself commenting of the copies that if ‘the General had sat for all these portraits he could have done nothing else; our Independence would have been a secondary matter.’[2] The present portrait seems closest to that sketch, but likely more directly derived from Sully’s more polished translation of it.

Gilbert Stuart popularised portrait miniatures in America when he arrived in New York in 1793. Working alongside Irish miniaturist Walter Robertson, both artists worked in a happy partnership to provide both an oil and a portrait miniature for their patrons. By the time the present miniature was painted, portrait miniatures were as much part of the culture of American society as they were in England. While superb miniatures of Washington were painted by the New York based Irish artist John Ramage (c.1748-1802)[3], we have no information on the artist or original owner of this portrait. Fewer than a dozen portrait miniatures of Washington were taken from life, the rest, as with this example, were based on existing images. The present miniature was most likely to have been commissioned to coincide with the epic national mourning which followed Washington’s death in 1799.

[1] The Athenaeum portrait is jointly owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass., and the NPG Washington.

[2] D. Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart, 1999, p. 88.

[3] One version sold at Christie’s, New York, 19 January 2001, for $1,216,000.

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500 Years of British Art