We know him as a war hero and the first president of the United States, but George Washington was also a practiced chartmaker and cartographer. He became an official land surveyor in Virginia at the age of 17, and was involved in creating many maps throughout his life, including the map above of his home, Mount Vernon.
As a general, Washington well understood the dire need for accurate cartography. He once wrote:
“The want of accurate Maps of the Country which has hitherto been the Scene of War, has been a great disadvantage to me. I have in vain endeavored to procure them and have been obliged to make shift, with such sketches as I could trace from my own Observations.”
Long before he became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington had an established career as a land surveyor in Culpeper County, Virginia. He’d originally wanted…
American painter Gilbert Stuart’s legacy is defined, in part, by his iconic painting of the first U.S. President, George Washington. Yet there’s more to this presidential artwork and its curious creator than meets the eye.
1. THE PAINTING IS NOT NAMED AFTER ITS SUBJECT OR ITS COMMISSIONER.
Instead, the Lansdowne Portrait is named for the Marquess of Lansdowne. Born William Petty-FitzMaurice, he was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the end of the American Revolution and the beginnings of the peace negotiations. American senator William Bingham commissioned this portrait in 1795. It was a present for the Marquis, in thanks for his support of the Jay Treaty and normalizing relations between the two countries. During that time, the newly minted United States was nearing the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which paved the way for Washington’s presidency.
The Lansdowne Portrait isn’t even his most popular portrait. That honor would go to the 1796 Athenaeum Portrait. Not only is that unfinished portrait counted as the most iconic image of Washington, but it’s also the basis of the president’s depiction on America’s dollar bill. Churning out copies of his greatest works, Stuart turned his Washington portraits into a cottage industry. He ultimately sold 130 copies of Athenaeum for $100 apiece.
3. STUART WAS A COWARDLY PATRIOT.
As the American Revolution approached, the Rhode Island-born painter fled to England to escape the conflict. There and in Ireland, he developed a reputation as a portrait artist. Stuart won praise for capturing the character of his subjects, as he did with the 1782 painting of William Grant, The Skater.
4. IT WAS A DESIRE TO PAINT WASHINGTON THAT DREW HIM BACK STATESIDE.
Well, that and mounting debt that chased him out of England and then Ireland. Stuart planned to use the education he’d acquired overseas to paint America’s political elite in the prestigious manner of European royalty. He wrote to a friend:
“When I can net a sum sufficient to take me to America, I shall be off to my native soil. There I expect to make a fortune by [portraits of] Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits, whole lengths, what will enable me to realize; and if I should be fortunate, I will repay my English and Irish creditors. To Ireland and English I shall be adieu.”
Stuart returned to the U.S. in 1793. But meeting Washington was no easy task.
Reaching New York City, Stuart sought a contact that could get him closer to the president, and found Founding Father John Jay. After impressing John Jay by painting his portrait, the American statesman obliged the painter with a letter of introduction that sent Stuart to Philadelphia, which served as the country’s capital until 1800. There, the president and the portraitist would meet again and again, spawning the Lansdowne Portrait, the Athenaeum, and the Vaughan, among other works.
In this week’s “best of” our YouTube channel, we answer such questions as how George Washington died, why Rice Krispies snap, crackle and pop, why Coke inexplicably tried to change their formula completely almost overnight, why lobsters turn red when you cook them, why poop is brown, why peppers taste hot and mint cold and why the traditional dog of…