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Portrait of George Washington

Thomas Sully never met George Washington, but he copied a painting by another artist who had.

Hiram Powers based this sculpture on one made by a French artist. Jean-Antoine Houdon had covered the president's face with plaster to get an exact likeness. But how realistic are the clothes?


key idea
Is that what George Washington really looked like?

Since there were no photographs in George Washington's day, we cannot know exactly what he looked like. He had "a large and straight nose," wrote someone who knew him in 1760. "His face is long rather than broad, with high round cheek bones… His mouth is large and generally firmly closed." Do you think the artist has successfully captured those details in this picture?

In the days before cameras, people commonly called upon artists to create a "likeness" of themselves or someone they wanted to honor. But professional artists did not usually paint with the person in front of them the whole time. They would spend a session or two working on the face, and perhaps hands, of their subject. The rest of the time they would work in their studios from memory or sketches. They might even ask a friend to pose for the body. Historians have found a few different stories about whose body is portrayed here!

Several painters had the chance to paint George Washington from life. He looks slightly different in all of them. Gilbert Stuart's portraits of the first president became especially well known. They were admired not just because they showed what he looked like, but because they gave a sense of his personality as well. This picture is a copy of one of those portraits. How would you describe Washington's personality?

September 2003