Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Will the Original George Washington Please Stand Up?

It's a picture all Americans see on a daily basis. When we reach into our wallet to hand the cashier at 7-11 money for a Gatorade, there it is. Or when we struggle to get a bill into a parking-machine, there it is again. When we throw some bills on the table for the waitress, there it is yet again. It dots our currency--we can't avoid it. I'll give you another hint, it's the picture that has been on our one-dollar bill for over a century. Yes, it's the famous image of George Washington, the United State's first president. (Okay fine, so the picture kind of gave it away).

And who was the artist? Anybody? Anybody?

Gilbert Charles Stuart: the hand that painted this iconic image.

A famous portraitist, he was praised for the naturalness of his painting and his subjects found him, well, agreeable. Even John Adams said so.

"Speaking generally, no penance is like having one's picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation." – John Adams

He didn't use sketches, rather he applied paint directly to the canvas and yet he came up with these amazing portraits. He painted portraits of George Washington, King George III of England, King Louis XVI of France, John Quincy Adams, Abigail Adams, and even Philadelphia socialite Catherine Brass Yates (well, how about that?). All these portraits kept him busy and highly paid for years as he was able to make a profit off the prints.

The image on America's one-dollar bill is called The Athenaeum. And, get this, the original was never finished. Nope. Began in 1796, Stuart left the image unfinished at the time of his death in 1828. However, Stuart and his daughters painted and produced over 130 images of The Athanaeum.

Stuart had a stoke and continued to paint despite being partially paralyzed. When he died, he was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in New England due to having left his family in so much debt that they couldn't afford a proper cemetery plot.

And that is the man who painted the famous George Washington image.

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