America’s Most Famous Unfinished Artwork

This summer, I will be travelling to Boston, and when I do, I’ll be sure to swing by the Museum of Fine Arts to see Gilbert Stewart’s iconic George Washington Portrait.

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ABOVE: Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1796, oil on canvas, 47 x 37 inches, The Museum of Fine Arts, Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In 1796, renowned portraitist Gilbert Stuart was commissioned to paint George and Martha Washington. George was reluctant to sit for another portrait (Stuart had painted him the previous year), but agreed, so long as the finished products became the property of his wife.

Before completion however, Stuart decided that he liked these portraits better than previous efforts, and in order to avoid handing them over to Martha, he deliberately left them unfinished. Even worse, he theused the president’s portrait as a model for numerous commissions, and held on to both paintings until his death in 1828.

In 1869, Stuart’s image of George Washington was placed on the $1 bill, and to this day, is one of the world’s most iconic portraits. It is owned jointly by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I’m hoping to see it this summer.

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The Lansdowne Portrait

Next month, I will be visiting the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Of all the paintings on display, I’m most excited to see the Lansdowne Portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

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ABOVE: Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), 1796, oil on canvas, 96 x 60 inches, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

Commissioned in 1796 by Senator William Bingham of Pennsylvania, the Lansdowne Portrait is one of the most iconic works by renowned portraitist Gilbert Stuart. It shows a 64 year old George Washington at the end of his second term in office.

The gigantic painting, which measures 8 x 5 feet, was gifted to English statesman William Petty for his role in bringing the American War of Independence to an end. As Petty’s official title was the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, the portrait came to bear his name.

In addition to the original, Stuart painted several replicas, one of which was purchased by the U.S. Government. That painting was later rescued from the White House shortly before British soldiers set it on fire in the War of 1812. First Lady Dolley Madison is often credited with its rescue.

While the replica still hangs in the East Room of the White House, and copies by other artists can be found in the U.S. House of Representatives and on Capitol Hill, the original hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. It was donated to the gallery after being purchased for $20 million in 2001.

The Lansdowne Portrait is at the top of my list of things to see while in Washington D.C.