In 1794, with a letter of introduction from John Jay in hand, Stuart went to Philadelphia to request sittings with George Washington. Painting his portrait was a shrewd business move, for depictions of Washington were in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. Stuart’s established technique for finding appropriate expressions and poses for his sitters was to engage them with lively banter. When he encountered Washington, however, he found the president to be a difficult sitter. Stuart’s usual charm and repartee failed to enliven this reserved man. According to Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, Stuart finally succeeded in engaging him by discussing horses, a favorite topic of the president, who was an accomplished equestrian.
Each of Stuart’s portraits of Washington (about one hundred in all) is based on one of three life portraits. Washington first sat for Stuart in 1795, but the result of that early session, a portrait showing Washington facing right, is known only through replicas that are identified as the Vaughan type (named for the first owner of one of the replicas). That first portrait was so successful that Martha Washington commissioned Stuart to paint a pair of portraits of her and her husband for their Virginia home, Mount Vernon. Stuart began what would become his most reproduced image, a depiction of Washington facing left, now called the Athenaeum portrait for the Boston library that acquired it after Stuart’s death. Although he never finished the original itself, he used it throughout his career to make approximately seventy-five replicas, and the image––carefully built up with contrasting flesh tones––is one of Stuart’s most accomplished portraits. Creating it was not an easy task; when the president came to sit for the portrait, his newly acquired set of false teeth created a bulge around the mouth and distorted his jawline.
In 1796 the president sat a third time. This full-length canvas envisions Washington in the role of civilian leader, in a formal black velvet suit rather than his military uniform. The portrait is known as the Lansdowne because it was commissioned as a gift for the Marquis of Lansdowne. The composition, which reflects Stuart’s knowledge of European state portraiture, includes objects symbolic of Washington’s illustrious military and civil leadership, while his oratorical pose, with hand extended, refers, according to contemp- oraries, to his recent speech to Congress. The image was celebrated in America and England upon its completion, and Stuart was commissioned to paint several replicas.