Wednesday, September 8, 2010

George Washington's Left Eye

 I recently finished a painting that includes a portrait of George Washington.

In order to achieve his likeness convincingly, I assembled three portraits by Gilbert Stuart, and studied and compared them. What I found interesting is how different they appear, and yet how similarly they were painted.

These three portraits by Stuart are each recognizable as George Washington, and yet they feel distinctly different. It’s as though they each reveal a subtly different personality trait in Washington, or at least a different mood.

In studying these images, one has to appreciate that Stuart made his living by painting portraits, and that while Washington's portrait was in high demand, the president had posed only twice for Stuart. Therefore Stuart was busily making copies of his own copies. There was no Washington sitting in front of him and of course, nothing like photographic reference. His own work was the primary reference.

Now compare these eyes from the three portraits. They’re all Washington’s left eye, the right eye as we face the portrait. One can see, especially in the first two eyes, that Stuart was trying to duplicate the likeness, stroke by stroke.

In this image, I’ve superimposed all three faces. While the noses are slightly off-register, the eyes align perfectly. I conclude that Gilbert Stuart used some method of tracing his copies, and I think that the varying moods of Washington’s portraits were never a primary intention. Instead, I think Stuart was focused on simply trying to duplicate, for the umpteenth time, an accurate likeness.


  1. That's a fascinating study of how Stuart likely worked – and how you work, as well.

  2. Thanks!

    Gilbert Stuart was an interesting fellow and makes for good reading. He had a hard time at one of Washington's sittings because the president's mouth hurt from his ill-fitting dentures (doubtlessly a chronic problem). Washington's features sagged around the mouth that day, and looked unnatural. So Stuart suggested plumping up the area by stuffing Washington's mouth with a little cotton, which Washington allowed. That accounts for the rather flat look one sees around Washington's mouth on the one dollar bill. Poor George!

  3. I wonder how many artists painted George Washington? Is Stuart to thank for the image we all have in our head of George? If so, his eye may not really have looked like that at all, but since Stuart thought it looked like that, then we all now think it looked like that.... does that make sense? Fascinating study. I will be adding you to my blogroll now!

  4. Thanks so much!

    I would agree with you that it is Stuart's vision of Washington that is in our collective consciousness, though I much prefer the painting by Rembrandt Peale that currently resides over the Oval Office mantle. To see the truest likeness of Washington, one should study the sculptures of Jean-Antoine Houdon, who worked closely from a life mask.

  5. Mark, thanks for another fascinating article. I did as you mentioned above and found an image of Houdon's Washington.
    I recognize the face, but it looks much less like the painted images I am familiar with than I expected. Had I come across it on my own I would have dismissed this sculpture, but with your guidance I feel I am seeing George for the first time.

  6. Thanks, Joe!

    Few if any sculptors have surpassed Jean-Antoine Houdon for capturing likenesses. When you see a portrait bust of one of his subjects — Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Voltaire — you can trust that that's what they really looked like. Not only did Houdon work from life masks, but he took numerous head measurements with calipers. A testament to Houdon's skill is that John Paul Jones' remains (which were in question) were authenticated by matching Jones' skull to Houdon's bust of him.