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Object Spotlight: How many times did George Washington sit for his portrait?
George Washington may be the most recognizable figure in American history. You’ve probably seen many different portraits of him–in fact, there are hundreds! But what you may not know is Washington didn’t pose for each portrait himself. So, how many times did Washington sit for an artist to take his likeness?
Portrait sittings were not always recorded, so we can’t be certain, but after combing through diaries, letters, and other documentary evidence, historian David Meschutt found that Washington posed at least 32 times for 19 different artists between 1772 and 1798. As the numbers suggest, Washington sometimes sat for the same artist multiple times.
He was portrayed by these 19 artists in a variety of forms, including oil paintings, drawings, pastels, watercolor miniatures, and clay sculpture. Among the most recognizable artists Washington sat for were Jean-Antoine Houdon, Edward Savage, John Trumbull, and Gilbert Stuart.
Artists often made copies of their own work, and of the works of others, which accounts for the numerous Washington portraits that exist. Gilbert Stuart alone made as many as 75 copies of his famous “Athenaeum” portrait (better known as the portrait featured on the $1 bill).
Despite his prominent status as General of the Continental Army and First President of the United States, Washington did not enjoy having his portrait taken. On May 21, 1772, a day after he sat for Charles Willson Peale, Washington wrote to his friend Jonathan Boucher:
"Inclination having yielded to Importunity, I am now, contrary to all expectation under the hands of Mr Peale; but in so grave–so sullen a Mood–and now and then under the influence of Morpheus, when some critical strokes are making, that I fancy the skill of this Gentleman’s Pencil, will be put to it, in describing to the World what manner of Man I am."
Morpheus is the Greek god of dreams–and it seems Washington was on the verge of falling asleep during his portrait sitting!
Department of Historic Preservation and Collections
For more details on Washington’s life portraits, see David Meschutt, “Life Portraits of George Washington,” in Barbara J. Mitnick, ed., George Washington: American Symbol (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1999), pp. 25-37.
One of Stuart’s many copies of his Athenaeum portrait, which Washington posed for in 1796.