The US presidency is much on people’s minds these days, to put it mildly, and there’s a lot of talk about what kind of image the current occupant of that office is putting forward. While Trump may be a different style of President in many ways, what really isn’t new is the interest in how the public image of the President shapes our attitude toward the job he holds.
As I’ve listened to arguments about the degree to which Trump is changing how we think of the presidency, I’ve been rereading an interesting book entitled The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art by historian Hugh Howard. In it, he tells the story of the many times George Washington posed for painters over the course of his public life and the ways in which the resulting portraits influenced how people thought of Washington himself and, ultimately, the curious new office which he was the first to occupy.
Many great artists painted pictures of Washington over the course of his life, and doing so (or at least doing so well) contributed significantly to their fame rising alongside his. Charles Willson Peale, his son Rembrandt Peale, John Trumbull, and French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon are just some of the accomplished artists who played a part in shaping the image of the man who was known as the “Father of his Country” long before he became its first President. The senior Peale first painted Washington’s portrait in 1772, three years before the Revolution broke out and he was tapped to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Howard notes that “beyond the few who had seen the man in person, most of those who had begun proudly to call themselves Americans became acquainted with George Washington through Mr. Peale’s eyes.”
Gilbert Stuart’s portraits, however, are perhaps the ones with which we’re most familiar today; certainly one in particular is. In 1796, he began working on a portrait of Washington that remained unfinished a year later except for the head. But by that point, most who saw it were in agreement that Stuart had captured something significant even in the small portion he had thus far completed. It became known as The Athenaeum portrait (so labeled because it went to the Boston Athenaeum after Stuart’s death) and is the basis for, among other things, Washington’s likeness on the one-dollar bill. In 1823, art critic John Neal commented that if “a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it,” because by then this image had become the universally acclaimed one.
As famous as these paintings would someday be, a relatively small number of people saw them in the first century of their existence. As he explains in his book Popular Images of the Presidency, the eminent historian of the early republic Noble Cunningham points out that “contemporaries did not often view the oil portraits painted from life by accomplished artists. Most Americans gained their impressions of the presidents from engraved prints and later—and more widely—from popular lithographs.” The works of Stuart, Peale, and other artists of greater or lesser ability formed the basis for thousands of inexpensive reproductions that circulated among everyday people.
Cunningham titles the opening chapter in his book “The Presdency Enshrined” and indeed this is what Washington’s ubiquitous image did in the minds of Americans. The respect and devotion people felt for Washington transferred to the office which he pioneered, and showed for the first (but not last) time how a personal public image can affect our attitude toward the the government itself.
Originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald, May 25, 2017
General George Washington Resigning his Commission, John Trumbull, c.1817-1824, oil on canvas, United States Capitol rotunda, Washington, DC.