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Portrait of George Washington

Perhaps you recognized the man in this picture the moment you saw it. What did you see that told you who he was?

Take a step back in time to America of the 1820s, when this picture was painted. Almost fifty years had passed since the first shot of independence was fired. The tense years after the war, when it seemed the states could not agree on anything, were history. Nearly all Americans of the day agreed that the success of their new nation–not always certain–was due to the leadership of one man. George Washington was more than a general and a politician. He had become a symbol of the nation.

How does an artist put all that in a picture?

Thomas Sully, Portrait of George Washington (1732-1799), c. 1820, oil on canvas
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Is that what George Washington really looked like?
What makes this portrait symbolic?
Why would an artist copy someone else's picture?

Pick from Portraits of the Past: 18th century painters kept collections of pictures by other artists to get ideas for their own work. You can start your own collection of portrait samples using the Art Collector tool at (Art Collector is free but you'll need to log in.) Look through the sample portraits. What details would you borrow for a portrait of your friend? Your school principal? Today's president of the United States? Sharpen your pencils and try out your ideas. Click here to begin or here to learn more about Art Collector.  

Compare Another Portrait of George Washington: Thomas Sully based this portrait on a similar one by Gilbert Stuart. Learn more about that artist and his portraits of George Washington online at George Washington: A National Treasure. You will leave this Web site. Use your browser's "back" button to return.  

En español: Click here for a Spanish version of these pages.  

September 2003