Art Criticism: George Washington, By Gilbert StuartPosted: April 7, 2014
Chances are you’ve got a Gilbert Stuart painting in your pocket. Of course, if you live outside the US or are having some financial difficulties you might not. The picture of George Washington on a U.S. one dollar bill is from a Stuart portrait of the first president of the United States.
Gilbert produced more than one thousand portraits during his career. Not all of those paintings were of George Washington, but a lot of them were. Washington was a favorite topic for Gilbert. Not just any art critic would take on the task of critiquing a very skilful portrait artist on a painting of that artist’s favorite subject.
I’m not just any art critic.
Today, I am going to discuss a particular Washington portrait by Gilbert. The original is at the Museum Of Fine Arts in Boston. A reproduction of this painting hangs in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
Pretty Good, Huh?
Like I said, Mr. Stuart liked to paint Mr. Washington. It seems that the repetition paid off. This is a very good painting.
As a matter of full disclosure, I must admit that I’ve never met Mr. Washington. So this could be a painting of just about anyone. With that admission, I will amend my assessment and say this is a very good painting of a man. Perhaps that man was George Washington. The title of this very good painting is Washington At Dorchester Heights.
Start by examining the background. It is clear that Washington is up high. The artist doesn’t rely on the word “heights” in the title to make the point that George is up pretty high. Gilbert paints the setting and shows the viewer the heights.
Washington looks calm and in control. That’s just what you want to see from a great general and president. Calmness implies a certain level of confidence. People tend to equate calm confidence with competence. Maybe that’s a good idea, or maybe it allows leaders to bamboozle folks.
Anyway, Gilbert made it look like Washington was a man in control. If you have any doubt, look at the horse. Washington’s horse is looking down from the heights. He seems to be expressing that he’s seen something unsettling. George is not concerned. He will deal with whatever the horse’s problem is when he’s ready to deal with it and not a moment before.
The interplay of light and shadow in the distant smoke helps express the turmoil that is war. Mr. Washington’s eyes give away that behind his calm is the sorrow of a leader who hurts for those he leads into battle.
What’s The Real Message?
Most art critics and historians will not tell you what I’m about to. There is a hidden message in this painting.
You see, Gilbert Stuart did not approve of the company Washington kept when he wasn’t at work. Stuart thought that Washington’s friends were a sketchy group who were prone to shenanigans which reflected poorly on the great man. When he spoke to Washington about his concern, the president told him “I hear you, but they’re my boys. It’s all good”. Stuart was not satisfied by this answer and told the president “you don’t want people saying “I saw the president hanging out with some horse’s ass”, do you?”
Washington gave Stuart a pretty thorough thrashing. Then he threw the painter out of his office. From that day forward, when Gilbert Stuart would drop by to see him, George Washington would pretend he wasn’t home.
Gilbert remained concerned about Washington’s choice of friends. He wanted to talk to him more about it but knew the president had cut him out of his inner circle. “Come on”, he confided to a friend, “the blinds were open when I walked up to the house. They were closed when I left. I’m not stupid.” He decided to use his portrait skills to express his concerns.
After several weeks of work, Gilbert shipped his new work down to Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. He attached a note to the painting with a subtle expression of his concern tucked in to the original title of the portrait – “Washington And Some Horse’s Ass At Dorchester Heights”.
Washington liked the painting. Unfortunately for Gilbert Stuart, Washington wasn’t pleased with the title’s subtle dig at his friends. He threw the note in the recycling bin and considered how he’d get back at the artist. It didn’t take him long to come up with a plan.
The president had the painting hung in a prominent place in his home. When guests asked about it, he would tell them the title was “Washington At Dorchester Heights”. Naturally they’d always ask who had painted it and the great man would reply “hang on a second”. Then he’d turn and call out to his wife “Martha, do you remember the name of the guy who did this painting of me standing on the hill?” And even though Martha Washington had a loud, clear voice, the president would act like he couldn’t hear her answer. He’d shrug sheepishly and tell his guests, “I don’t know, some horse’s ass”.
After the president and the painter were both gone, art historians reconnected Gilbert Stuart’s name with his work. Out of respect for both men, the original title has been kept a secret in the art community.