When Washington took office, no one quite knew how to depict a president. He could be represented as a soldier, statesman, or demigod—no one artistic model sufficed. At stake in these artistic portrayals was the new democracy’s stability.
The Washingtons’ personal virtue and prestige represented that of the nation and artists intended that their portraits reflect the couple’s simplicity, sincerity, and fortitude.
George was said to be tall, had a long nose, and the varying quality of his dental work...
...changed the appearance of his face.
Martha was known to be short but pleasant looking and was customarily plainly dressed.
America’s first great generation of artists individually proclaimed their own works the most faithful representations of the leader.
Future generations have found importance in these early portrayals of the first family, repeatedly turning to images of Washington in times of uncertainty.
Artists such as Grant Wood (1891–1942) painted Washington folklore in the face of fascism’s rise, and other artists juxtaposed everyday turmoil with the transcendent image of the country’s first symbol of hope.
Mason Locke Weems (1756–1825), known as Parson Weems, penned the fable of Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree. Wood shows Weems gesturing toward a six-year-old George confessing to his father with the famous phrase, “I cannot tell a lie.”
Rather than depicting young Washington, Wood borrowed the head from Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of the first president, making him instantly recognizable, building on nineteenth-century beliefs that when it came to portraits of George, even if “a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it; for, the only idea that we now have of George Washington, is associated with Stuart.”