One of George Washington’s most famous portraits resides at the National Portrait Gallery. Nicknamed the “Lansdowne” portrait, Gilbert Stuart’s 205-year-old painting, George Washington, has only spent a few of those years in the United States.
“Lansdowne” comes from the person for whom it was painted, the first Marquis of Lansdowne. Sen. William Bingham and his wife Anne commissioned the painting in 1796 as a gift for the marquis, a British member of Parliament who supported the American side during the Revolution. Bingham earned his fortune through trade and privateering and served as U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania from 1795 to 1801. The marquis was ambitious and overbearing, and his support of the American Revolution isolated him from his fellow British politicians.
Bingham paid Stuart one thousand dollars for the commission, which came about as the result of Bingham’s correspondence with Lansdowne about their mutual admiration for Washington and their interest in open transatlantic trade. The portrait’s iconography includes a nod to Washington’s ratification of the Jay Treaty, and the resulting transatlantic political alliance garnered during Washington’s second term.
The painting was on display at Lansdowne’s London mansion until he died in 1805. After that, it was held privately and became part of the 5th Earl of Rosebery’s collection around 1890. It later moved farther north, to Dalmeny House, in West Lothian, Scotland. The painting traveled to the United States three times, the latest time when it went on loan to the National Portrait Gallery in 1968. The portrait remained on loan until 2000, when its owner decided to sell it and the Gallery was in danger of losing the painting. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation donated $30 million to help purchase the painting as a gift to the nation, and it has remained on display ever since.
Before this commission, Stuart had already painted Washington a number of times, and his subject was getting tired of sitting for so many portraits. Bingham’s wife, Anne, persuaded the president to sit one more time. Washington sent a note to Stuart on April 11, confirming his participation: “Sir: I am under promise to Mrs. Bingham, to set for you to-morrow at nine o’clock, and wishing to know if it be convenient to you that I should do so, and whether it shall be at your own house, (as she talked of the State House), I send this note to you, to ask information.” Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, wrote later: “It is notorious that it was only by hard begging that Mrs. Bingham obtained the sittings for the Marquis of Lansdowne’s picture.”
The 8′ x 5′ portrait shows Washington in a black velvet suit as he appeared before Congress in Philadelphia. The president is surrounded by symbols of the new nation, including a table leg that represents a Roman symbol of political unity, and a rainbow that symbolized the end of the storm of the Revolution. The portrait is considered a symbol of reconciliation between England and the United States.
Additional Resource: George Washington: A National Treasure – An interactive portrait from the Smithsonian Institution.