“First in the Hearts of His Countrymen”: George Washington’s Image in the American Consciousness, 1779–1940
Adam T. Erby, George Washington's Mount Vernon
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1798 (Courtesy, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
George Washington after the Battle of Princeton by Charles Willson Peale, 1780 (Courtesy, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
The iconography, even apotheosis, of George Washington is ubiquitous: we see his Gilbert Stuart portrait multiple times a day on the dollar bill; Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of George Washington is positioned above the mantel in the Oval Office; the District of Columbia named for our first president. Veneration of the beloved American was international: his image appeared on French toiles and Staffordshire creamware pitchers. Adulation has continued through the 20th century, most notably by his visage overlooking the Black Hills of South Dakota from high atop Gutzon Borglum’s Mount Rushmore.
As a member of Virginia’s colonial elite, George Washington was raised to lead and govern, serving in the Virginia militia in the French and Indian War, leading American military forces against the British during the American Revolution, and presiding over the Constitutional Convention; he was unanimously selected to serve as the first president of the United States. While countless biographers have attempted to understand George Washington as an individual and to parse the fine details of his life story, George Washington has long served as a shorthand symbol of the nation, more than a mere man, a symbol comparable to that of the bald eagle and the American flag.
Adam Erby’s first lecture will examine George Washington as a symbol in American art. He will first explore the creation of Washington imagery during his lifetime beginning with Charles Willson Peale’s portraits of the heroic general following the Battle of Princeton and conclude with Gilbert Stuart’s iconic Lansdowne portrait of the president of the United States in his familiar black velvet suit. The cult of Washington grew exponentially after his death in 1799, marked by a multitude of schoolgirl mourning pictures, instructive biographies and statuary, including Horatio Greenough’s sculpture of Washington as if he were a bare-chested Greek deity. Mr. Erby will then look at the manner in which artists have used George Washington’s image to advocate for particular causes at touchstone moments in American history.