A Gift to the Nation

Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of George Washington
Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of George Washington Wikimedia Commons

By the 1790s George Washington had become emblematic of America, and Americans knew it. He held the nation steady, and his example gave reality to its ideals. "He has so much martial dignity in his deportment. ...There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side," said the physician Benjamin Rush of the imposing Washington, who stood inches above six feet when the norm was to stop inches below. In the final year of Washington’s Presidency, his portrait was painted, life-size, by the renowned American artist Gilbert Stuart. Stuart actually did a number of portraits of the President, including the head that has had so famous an afterlife on the American dollar bill, and he made many replicas. The portraits helped deliver Washington’s image to history. And none did so more emphatically than Stuart’s life-size Washington.

Mrs. William Bingham, as a gift to a British statesman, the marquess of Lansdowne. Washington was 64 years old, and a little more than three years from his death, when Stuart fulfilled the commission. We know from other contemporary pictures of the President that he was visibly an old man, but Stuart banished time’s mischief from the portrait. His Washington is a mature figure certainly, and yet the years have left the President’s features smooth. Regal as any king, though pointedly not a king, he stands for the inspection of his countrymen, the world and the future. He wears civilian clothes—a black velvet suit—rather than the military uniform that had been his attire in other full-length pictures. In him are plainly visible the aspirations of the new democratic America, where an individual of even Washington’s majesty would eventually leave high office and resume the life of an ordinary citizen.

The finished portrait—known today as the Lansdowne—was sent to England, where it changed hands over the years and passed to the fifth earl of Rosebery. In 1968 the earl’s grandson lent the picture to the Smithsonian for the opening of the National Portrait Gallery, and it has had a home in the gallery ever since. Then, last year, came unexpected news: the current owner notified the Smithsonian that he intended to put the painting up for sale. The Institution was welcome to purchase it, however, on exclusive terms in advance of a public auction—by April 2001, and for $20 million.

The painting had become so familiar a part of the lore of America’s beginnings that there was no conceiving the emptiness—not of space but of spirit—that would follow its removal from the Portrait Gallery. There must have been a special providence in having the Smithsonian first go public with its appeal for funds on Washington’s birthday. A flurry of newspaper articles, and the appearance of gallery director Marc Pachter on the Today show several days later, set in train a sequence of events that led quickly to an act of extraordinary and exemplary generosity by the board of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation in Las Vegas. They made a gift of up to $30 million to the Smithsonian—and thereby made a gift of the Lansdowne Washington to America. The additional millions will send the picture on a national tour and provide for its permanent display in the Portrait Gallery when that museum reopens.

George Washington’s America lay east of the Mississippi, and the first President probably did not imagine an America of today’s scope and prosperity. Patriotic citizens from the America that Washington did not know—but that would not have been possible without his wisdom and courage—have now safeguarded an icon of the first days of the nation. The grand reach of their action, across time and geography, invites us to marvel once again at the astonishing good fortune of these United States.

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