Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) One hundred and one years ago today, August 23, 1814, First Lady Dolley Madison, with British troops headed toward the President's House, ordered the Gilbert Stuart* portrait of President George Washington cut out of its frame, rolled up, and whisked away to safety.
Mrs. Madison was assisted by Paul Jennings, one of her husband's slaves. The work, known as the Lansdowne portrait, was done in full-length format known as the "Grand Manner." This type of portrait had been initially reserved only for royalty.
The oil on canvas portrait, dated 1796, depicts President Washington dressed in a black velvet suit with his right arm outstretched, holding a dress sword.
On the cloth covered table next to the President are books titled "Federalist" and "Journals of Congress." The table leg bears an American Eagle and 13 bundled rods symbolic of the unification of the 13 original colonies. A rainbow in the distant background symbolizes peace that came with the end of revolution.
This famous portrait which is the oldest object in the White House today, however, is not the original. It is a copy purchased by the United States government.
The original was commissioned by Senator William Bingham of Pennsylvania in April 1796 as a gift of appreciation to British Prime Minister William Petty Fitzmaurice who later became the Marquess of Landsdowne and had been a supporter of American independence.
The original portrait, which measures 8 by 5 feet, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The price of $20 million was provided by a grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.
*Gilbert Charles Stuart (1755-1828) was born in Saunderstown, RI. His first known painting, "Dr. Hunter's Dogs," was completed in Newport. GCS studied under Benjamin West in London returning to the U.S. in 1793. He opened a studio in Philadelphia where he worked on many of his Washington portraits. GCS lived in Boston from 1805 until his death.
Stuart is known as the "Father of American Portraiture" because he portrayed most all of the notable personalities of the Federal period. He did over a thousand portraits in his lifetime including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams.
"Gilbert Stuart," Brooklyn Museum, www.brooklynmuseum.org/
"Gilbert Stuart," Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum, Saunderstown, R. I., www.gilbertstuartmuseum.org/
"The Collection: National Gallery of Art," www.nga.gov/