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The Lansdowne Portrait

Gilbert Stuart was one of America’s great portrait painters, painting more than 1000 people, including the first 6 presidents1Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams. He was a Loyalist, and at the onset of the American Revolution, he moved to England where he continued painting and honing his craft. But mounting debts led him to Ireland, and then, finally, back to America. He had an idea that could would get him out of his debts – paint George Washington. It was 1793 and Washington was just beginning his second term as Commander in Chief.

“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.”

The Lansdowne Portrait

But it’s hard for the common folk to meet American royalty (as some wanted Washington to be). So Gilbert formulated a plan – find someone who knew Washington, impress them, and then press them for an introduction. He did this with Founding Father, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay.

Stuart’s portrait of Chief Justice John Jay

Stuart persuaded Jay, through a flattering portrait of him (above) for an introduction to Washington. Expat Stuart had first met Jay in 1782 when the Jay was in London negotiating the Treaty of Paris, the formal accord that would officially end the Revolutionary War. Stuart would paint Jay more than once, and by impressing Jay, Stuart won his introduction to Washington. Jay contacted Washington in 1794 about Stuart, and Stuart departed for Philadelphia in November, 1794 to meet the president.

All in all, Stuart painted multiple portraits of Washington, ranging from the Vaughn Type portrait, the Atheneum Type, to the Landsdowne Type. The Lansdowne Type got its name from the owner of the first full-length portrait Stuart painted, William Petty, also known as the first Marquis of Lansdowne. The portrait of Washington was a gift from William Bingham, a merchant from Philadelphian who gifted the portrait to Lord Lansdowne for his financial support of the colonies during the Revolutionary War.

The portrait stayed in England well into the 19th century, where it became the property of the Dalmeny family. It went on permanent loan to the National Portrait Gallery in 1968, but in In 2000, the portrait’s owner, William Dalmeny, decided to put the painting up for auction. If the Portrait Gallery couldn’t come up with $20 million, he would sell it to the highest bidder. Fortunately, for all parties involved, the asking price was matched, and the painting safely resides in the National Portrait Gallery to this day.2Some other sources I found for this piece were from Mental Floss and also Khan Academy.

Me, at the National Portrait Gallery in 2022. With George. Even let my hair down for him.

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