The Athenaeum Portraits of George & Martha Washington
May 5, 2010 interview with Ellen Miles, curator of painting and sculpture, on the Athenaeum portraits of George & Martha Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Gilbert Stuart was commissioned to paint these portraits after the success of his first portrait of Washington in 1795. Martha Washington convinced the President to sit again. According to Rembrandt Peale, she "wished a Portrait for herself; he therefore consented on the express condition that when finished it should be hers." However Stuart preferred this portrait of Washington to his earlier one, and purposefully left the paintings unfinished, using that of Washington as a model for numerous copies. During Stuart's lifetime the portraits were referred to as the "Mount Vernon Portraits." They are now called the "Athenaeum portraits" because they were owned by the Boston Athenaeum for more than 150 years. Stuart's image of Washington has been considered very dramatic and forceful since the time it was painted. The artist depicted Washington with a distinct wide-jawed look, commenting that "When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face." John Neal, an early-nineteenth-century writer and art critic, wrote: "Stuart says, and there is no fact more certain, that he [Washington] was a man of terrible passions; the sockets of his eyes; the breadth of his nose and nostrils; the deep broad expression of strength and solemnity upon his forehead, were all a proof of this. Though a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it; for, the only idea that we now have of George Washington, is associated with Stuart's Washington."