J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Legends of the Lansdowne Portrait

Yesterday I mentioned Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne portrait” of George Washington now hanging at the Smithsonian. While researching the posting, I stumbled across some small controversies involving that portrait.

Some articles on the web (including its Wikipedia entry until I edited it) say that portrait was the one saved from the White House as the British army approached. But that painting was commissioned for the first Marquess of Lansdowne (formerly Earl of Shelburne) and shipped to his home in England before he died in 1805. It didn’t come back to the U.S. of A. for many decades.

Rather, Stuart painted multiple copies of his Washington portraits, which are classified in three groups, called “Vaughn,” “Athenaeum,” and “Lansdowne” after the owners of their most prominent examples. The “Lansdowne” of 1796 was a full-figure painting, obviously the most expensive.

The U.S. government bought a copy of Stuart’s “Lansdowne” pose for $800 in 1800. That went into the President’s mansion and hangs in the twice-rebuilt White House today.

However, there have been whispers that Stuart himself didn’t paint that canvas, that it’s a copy by a younger artist named William Winstanley. Stuart told a story about Winstanley copying his work and inviting him to touch the copies so they could be sold as coming (at least in part) from the more famous artist’s hand.

But Stuart had a strong reason to claim that there were unauthorized copies of his work floating around. Just three years before the U.S. government bought the White House copy (from a dealer he secretly worked with), Stuart had taken $500 from the government for a copy that he appears to have never delivered, according to this article at Revolutionary War and Beyond. So had he sold the same painting twice?

The mystery of who painted the White House portrait bubbled up again in 1975 when former National Portrait Gallery director Marvin Sadik told ARTnews that Winstanley had created that painting. Sadik didn’t appear to have new evidence; rather, his argument was based on the aesthetic judgment that the face in the portrait was “dead.” (Ironically, decades earlier authors had claimed that Stuart had painted that face but Winstanley had painted the somewhat mismatched body—also apparently based on no evidence.)

As ARTnews reported in 2004, Sadik’s comments caused the government to clean and study the White House portrait anew. Its experts agreed that it was by Stuart, though not his best example of the pose. The head and body don’t make a good match on the other “Lansdowne” portraits, either. Nevertheless, Sadik remained unconvinced. And the painting remained in the White House.

TOMORROW: Four ways to save Washington’s portrait from the British army.


DAG said...

While in college I did a study of Gilbert Stuart's and Washington's
relationship. From what I had read Mr. Stuart was not a great fan of our first president. That being so he never showed Washington is the best light. In my paper I used the painting of "Washington at Dorchester Heights" as an example of this. That painting shows our President next to a Horse's rear end.
I am recalling this almost 45 years from a crowded memory bank.
Mr. Bell do you ever recall hearing something similar about their relationship?

J. L. Bell said...

Stuart said that he liked to have his subjects talk casually about something so he could see what they looked like when animated, and it was hard to make Washington (by then President and American demi-god) relax that way. The subject the artist finally hit on was horses!

I don't think Stuart would have ever wanted to suggest he disliked Washington. The first President was such a popular figure in America, and Stuart earned a lot of money as the man's unofficial official painter. A successful portrait artist of the time didn't aim to express himself but to please his patrons.

According to James T. Flexner, who wrote biographies of both Stuart and Washington, the artist just wasn't very good at painting horses. For the "Dorchester Heights" commission, the patron wanted Washington and a horse. The view that Stuart chose minimized the detail and foreshortening necessary on that animal while still showing Washington ready to mount and ride.

There are a fair number of portraits containing horses' rears from that era, when horses were a primary form of transportation. Symbolically that view might have meant no more than showing the rear of a car today. (Hmmm. If our culture changes, will people read images of people beside the back of a car as implying that they're exhausted or polluting?)

Charles Bahne said...

I've heard a number of stories about the Dorchester Heights painting and the horse's rear, and I'm afraid that those stories are now getting confused in my mind. If I recall correctly, one of those stories says that Gilbert Stuart copied the pose after a portrait (not of Washington) that another artist had done for someone in Charleston, S.C. I also seem to recall that in both cases -- the Dorchester Heights portrait and the Charleston one -- there was something about the artist being miffed at the patron who commissioned the artwork, for example, not being paid enough, or not having enough time to complete the painting. In one of the cases I think the artist's first attempt at a pose was rejected by the customer, and so the artist painted the horse's rear as his second effort, knowing that the patron needed the job done quickly for some important occasion.

Gilbert Stuart's daughter Jane Stuart did a lot of copying of her father's works. I know of 3 different Jane Stuart copies of the Dorchester Heights painting that have been on public display in Boston: one at Faneuil Hall, one at the Old State House (Bostonian Society), and one at the Gibson House museum on Beacon St. in the Back Bay. The original, of course, is now at the Museum of Fine Arts, but it was originally painted for Faneuil Hall. I think that the City of Boston may still officially own the original.

J. L. Bell said...

The story of an angry artist is told about John Trumbull and his 1791 painting of Gen. Washington for the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Here's Jo Ann Butler's photo of the painting (it's hard to find on the net).

For this commission there seems to be evidence of friction between Trumbull and his customer; the city reportedly rejected the artist's first try because it didn't show Charleston, and there are indeed very similar paintings by Trumbull elsewhere. He then posed the horse’s genitals and rear over the city in the distance. This is a statement about Charleston, however, and not about Washington.