George Washington portrait tours America

Sunday, December 21, 2003

— America's first president stands tall in understated black, a controlled expression on his face and one arm outstretched as if beckoning to future generations.

The looming 8-foot-by-5-foot portrait of George Washington is one of the most famous American paintings, the only full-figure portrait of the general not wearing a soldier's uniform. It captures him in knee britches and a ruffled, white shirt, as a president for average people.

For the first and last time, Gilbert Stuart's famous oil-on-canvas is traveling across America.

It is on display at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art until April 11, then makes stops at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City before returning to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Thousands turned out to see the painting at previous tour spots in Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle and Minneapolis, said Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery.

"It's a great painting, but that's not the motivation," he said. "They're coming because, at some level, they feel this is their only way to meet George Washington. Even kids believe more that he actually existed by being in contact with him."

The portrait, recently purchased by the Gallery, never again will travel the country, Pachter said.

People expect to see it when they visit Washington and there are too many risks in transporting it, Pachter said. Worth at least $30 million, the painting was packed in a special crate and accompanied at all times by Smithsonian staff.

"This is your one chance to see it in your hometown," Pachter said.

The painting had been on loan to the Gallery since it opened in 1968. In 2000, its British owner announced he would sell it for $20 million, though curators believe he could have garnered at least $10 million more at an auction.

The Gallery was able to hang onto the portrait through a $30 million gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, a Las Vegas-based organization that also gave $14.5 million for the Oklahoma City Museum of Art's new downtown building.

Stuart painted the portrait in 1796 during Washington's last year as president. The president died two years after leaving office.

Washington sat for three days while Stuart drew his face, then the artist was forced to use a model who posed for months as Stuart painted Washington's 6-foot, 3-inch, 212-pound frame.

One of Washington's hands is on a sword at his side, and the other is outstretched, palm-up, toward the foreground.

"What is he saying?" said William Sommerfield, a dramatic interpreter of Washington. "I always think he's saying, 'We've created this, and now we're handing it on to you, the next generation."'

The portrait depicts Washington as a representative of democracy, not as a ruler, Sommerfield said. The president stands beside a chair, not a throne. An oval medallion of stars and stripes on the chair is draped with a laurel, a symbol of victory.

On the floor there are two books -- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

An allegorical scene behind the president shows parting storm clouds through a window and a rainbow, symbolizing the end of the fight for independence and the start of a new era.

The artwork is often called the Lansdowne portrait because it was commissioned by Pennsylvania Sen. William Bingham as a gift for the Marquis of Lansdowne, an English supporter of American independence.

Stuart made many portraits of the first president, including the one of Washington's bust now printed on the American dollar. The often-copied Lansdowne portrait is still the most famous of Washington.

"It's an American icon," said Carolyn Hill, executive director of the Oklahoma City museum. "It's been compared to the Liberty Bell. ... The symbolism means more than anything else."