The Face of American Art | November 9, 2023

George Washington is without a doubt the best known face in the history of American Art. He is a powerful symbol of our country, known the world over. He is also the reason for the cultural shift that created an appetite for art in the new nation. Understanding the importance of his own face as a symbol of our statehood, he allowed for that symbol to be painted and replicated and copied countless times in his lifetime and beyond. This created a livelihood and fame for American born portraitists, who then became internationally known and respected artists. Much of that living was made by copying their own work.

George Washington only sat for twenty-seven artists in his lifetime. Countless replicas were made by those artists of their own work and countless copies were made by artists who never met the first president. After Washington died in 1799, both those original twenty-seven and countless other artists were commissioned to paint Washington again. Through it all, the portraits created by Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755–1828), are the most widely accepted as the best likenesses of the historic icon.

Copies of an artist’s own work are considered replicas. An initial commission to paint Washington became an annuity for an artist. After an initial sitting, they would replicate their own work for other clients, in various forms from miniature to full length. Other artists could then paint copies of originals or replicas, sometimes even signing their own name. Gilbert Stuart was commissioned to paint his full length Washington at Dorchester Heights in 1806, and replicated Washington’s likeness in it from his own earlier work. His daughter Jane is known to have made at least five copies of her father’s original. She learned to paint at her father’s side, sometimes working on his very canvases, and therefore knew his technique and subjects intimately. As a Dorchester Heights by Gilbert Stuart is either unattainable or priceless, his daughter’s copy is truly the very closest thing.

Out of all of Gilbert Stuart’s life portraits of George Washington, the Atheneum type portrait is the best known. It was replicated by Stuart countless times until his death, and helped with his constant struggle with solvency. As the most popular image of the most popular founding father, it was copied by all manner of talent. It is possible that a fine period portrait painter in Philadelphia was commissioned to paint the copy on offer in our November auction. Without a signature, we will never know for sure. Nonetheless, it remains a period copy of the most iconic image of the best known face in all of American Painting.

For more information, please contact American Fine Art Specialist, Nan Zander 828-254-6846 |

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