Primary Source Activity: George Washington's Portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1796)

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1. Overview

In this exercise, teachers examine a portrait of George Washington painted in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart, one of the premiere portrait painters in the early republic. The portrait is highly symbolic and presents a grand, heroic image of Washington. Teachers examine a close-up of one symbol in the portrait as well as the portrait as a whole and then answer the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the symbol?
  • What questions do you want to ask about the symbol or the portrait?

After discussing these questions, teachers learn more about the historical context of the early republic and draw conclusions about how the portrait presents George Washington and his legacy as president. After completing the activity, teachers discuss classroom applications.

2. Source Analysis

  • Distribute one of the four symbols to each person.
  • Ask teachers to find a partner with the same symbol. In pairs, ask them to write down what they notice as well as a list of questions that they want to ask about the symbol, the context, or the historical background.
  • Distribute one copy of the full portrait to each person.
  • Ask teachers to work in pairs and write down what they notice as well as a list of questions that they want to ask about the portrait, the context, or the historical background.

3. Group Discussion

Write three columns onto the whiteboard: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background.

Use the following questions to guide discussion:

  • What did you notice about the isolated symbol?
  • What questions do you want to ask about that symbol?
  • What did you notice about the whole portrait?
  • What is being glorified in this portrait? Does the portrait promote a simplistic or a complicated image of Washington?
  • What is missing from this portrait? What can the portrait tell us and what can it not tell us about this time period?
  • What do you already know about the symbol and the portrait? About the time period in which they were created?
  • What further information would you want to know (i.e., about Washington, the time period, other 18th-century portraits)?

4. Historical Background

Present this historical background to enhance the group's knowledge of the time period, and as a basis for drawing conclusions in Step 5. Write the words in bold on the whiteboard, and use the rest of the text for guidance.

  • Origin of the portrait: Now known as the Landsdowne portrait, this painting was commissioned by William Bingham, a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, and presented to William Landsdowne, an English supporter of American independence.
  • Gilbert Stuart: The portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart of Rhode Island, one of the premiere portrait painters in the early republic. Stuart had traveled to England and Ireland and spent many years learning European techniques of portraiture.
  • Washington's role in the new nation: He served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and then presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In 1789, he was elected president. He served two terms as President of the United States, and then voluntarily relinquished power. His presidency served as a model for future leaders of the country.
  • Importance of 1796: George Washington is seen here in 1796, the last year of his presidency. One critical dilemma facing the United States at this time was figuring out what the president would do and be. Washington in this portrait represents key decisions in how to present Washington and the U.S. President in general. For example, would the president's authority be civilian or military? Regal or of the people?

5. Conclusions

The symbols primarily show three aspects of George Washington as a person and as the first representative of the office of the President of the United States. They show that:

  • 1. the newly formed United States was a peaceful and free democratic nation;
  • 2. Washington was an important person; and
  • 3. American leaders had confidence in the ability of the new nation to succeed.

What does each symbol represent?

Symbol 1: Washington's Dress and Shoes

  • Answer: 1. Peaceful, free democratic nation.
    In this portrait, Washington wanted to look more like a civilian than a general or a king. He is portrayed grandly, but as a representative of democracy, not in the tradition of a king. His authority is civilian, not military.

  • Answer: 2. Washington was an important person.
    In this pose, he embodies a stable and free nation. Washington is wearing a black velvet suit and silver-buckled shoes. A black suit with silver buckled shoes was considered formal, and would have indicated to people at the time that he was important enough to be very well dressed. It was common to wear fancy shoe buckles that drew attention to men's legs.

Symbol 2: Sword

  • Answer: 1. Peaceful, free democratic nation.
    Washington is holding a sword in its scabbard in his hand. This sword is safely in its sheath by his side—deliberately painted in its scabbard to indicate that the country will not be fighting in a war anytime soon.

  • Answer: 2. Washington was an important person.
    At this time, a sword was considered to be "the grand distinguishing mark of a fine Gentleman," so it was a sign of status. Like his dress, it indicated that he was an important person.

Symbol 3: Curtains and the portico

  • Answer: 2. Washington was an important person.
    The curtains and the portico draw on European portraiture traditions to show the importance of the figure being painted. The artist included these details to convey to the viewer that this man was considered powerful and important.

Symbol 4: Rainbow

  • Answer: 3. Confidence in the new nation.
    The rainbow, then as now, symbolizes that a storm has ended. Here, it means that the stormy days of founding a new country have ended, thanks to George Washington. In this portrait, the rainbow reflects Washington's confidence in the future of the United States.

6. Classroom Applications

  • Do you think this activity would work with your students?
  • Could you use this strategy with other resources?
  • Would you do anything differently in your classroom?

*This activity is based on the Smithsonian Institution's George Washington: A National Treasure.