From the beginning of the American republic, artists have played a role in shaping the image of the presidency.
The U.S. presidency is much on people’s minds these days, to put it mildly, and over the past few years there’s a been lot of talk about the proper kind of image the President should put forward.
Today is George Washington’s birthday and I’m thinking of an interesting book entitled The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art by historian Hugh Howard. It tells the story of the many times Washington patiently
posed for artists and the ways in which the resulting portraits influenced how people thought of him and, ultimately, the curious new office which he was the first to occupy.
Charles Willson Peale first painted Washington’s portrait in 1772, three years before the Revolution broke out and he was tapped to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Howard notes that “beyond the few who had seen the man in person, most of those who had begun proudly to call themselves Americans became acquainted with George Washington through Mr. Peale’s eyes.”
Gilbert Stuart’s paintings, however, are the ones with which most people are familiar today; certainly one in particular is. In 1796, he began working on a portrait of Washington that remained unfinished a year later except for the head. But by that point, most who saw it were in agreement that Stuart had captured something significant even in the small portion he had thus far completed. It became the basis for, among other things, Washington’s likeness on the one-dollar bill.
As famous as these paintings would someday be, only small number of people saw them in the first century of their existence. As he explains in his book Popular Images of the Presidency, the eminent historian of the early republic Noble Cunningham points out that most people back then didn’t get to see the portraits of Washington “painted from life by accomplished artists. Most Americans gained their impressions of the presidents from engraved prints and later — and more widely — from popular lithographs.”
The works of Stuart, Peale, and other artists of greater or lesser ability formed the basis for thousands of inexpensive reproductions that circulated among everyday people.
Cunningham titles the opening chapter in his book “The Presidency Enshrined” and this is exactly what Washington’s ubiquitous image did in the minds of Americans. The respect and devotion people felt for Washington transferred to the office which he pioneered and showed for the first (but not last) time how a personal public image can affect our attitude toward the government itself.