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Portrait of George Washington

You can see the painting Thomas Sully copied at the Web site of the New York Public Library, which owns the picture.

Artists commonly borrowed ideas from other works of art. What does this Italian portrait have in common with the portrait of George Washington?


key idea
Why would an artist copy someone else's picture?

Philadelphia artist Thomas Sully, who painted this picture, made his living by painting portraits. He completed more than 2000 pictures in his lifetime. Usually the people in his pictures sat for him in person as he sketched–even the young Queen Victoria of England.

This job was different. George Washington had been dead for more than 20 years. For this picture Sully copied the work of another artist, Gilbert Stuart. Stuart had painted Washington from life when he was still president. The president disliked posing for portraits. By the end of his presidency few artists had the chance to paint him from life.

Gilbert Stuart had many requests to paint copies of his paintings of George Washington for the new government buildings being built in the young nation. Stuart hoped to make his fortune selling these replicas. Indeed, more people wanted pictures than Stuart could provide. Other artists, such as Thomas Sully, were happy to take the commissions.

Did Gilbert Stuart mind that Thomas Sully copied his picture? Probably not. European artists of the time often made nearly exact copies of other people's pictures, particularly those of government or church leaders. But artists also looked at other pictures to get ideas for portraits of their own. Like many artists, Gilbert Stuart had a collection of prints based on paintings by European artists. Art historians have found the same details–a column with curtains, a desk and chair, books on the floor, and sky in the background–in a French picture from 1723.

September 2003