Gilbert Stuart was exclusively a portraitist; in his five-decade career, he produced well over 1100 pictures, less than ten of which were not likenesses. Of these portraits, nearly one-tenth are images of George Washington, to whom he was introduced by their mutual friend Chief Justice John Jay. Stuart's 104 known likenesses of the first president are divided into categories named after the owners of Stuart's originals, from which he made his own replicas: the National Gallery's George Washington (Vaughan portrait) was purchased by Samuel Vaughan, a London merchant who was the president's close friend.
A charming conversationalist, Stuart would chat while painting, thereby entertaining his sitters to maintain the freshness of their expressions during the long hours of posing. To the serious and taciturn Washington, however, Stuart's glib wit was annoying. The artist claimed, "An apathy seemed to seize him, and a vacuity spread over his countenance, most appalling to paint." Nevertheless, this image has spontaneity because of its quick, sketchy handling. To impart the sixty-three-year-old subject's imposing physical presence, Stuart placed the head high in the design. Finally, he added the crimson glow that complements Washington's ruddy complexion and surrounds his head like a superhuman aureole.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century, pages 201-206, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-18th-century.pdf