The commonly used title — “Lansdowne” — is derived from the name of the person for whom it was painted, the first Marquis of Lansdowne. It was commissioned in 1796 by one of America’s wealthiest men, Sen. William Bingham, and his wife Anne, for the marquis, a British supporter of the American cause in Parliament during the American Revolution. The gift was a remarkable gesture of gratitude and a symbol of reconciliation between America and Great Britain. The painting was displayed in Lansdowne’s London mansion until his death in 1805, after which it remained in private hands and was eventually incorporated into the collection of the 5th Earl of Rosebery around 1890. The portrait was later hung in Dalmeny House, in West Lothian, Scotland. It has traveled to America only three times since its creation, the last time when it was loaned to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 1968.
The painter’s chair: George Washington and the making of American art New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009 Hugh Howard Washington, George, 1732-1799 Portraits Hardcover. xix, 297 p.,  p. of plates: ill. (chiefly col.); 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 273-285) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Charles Willson Peale fought in the Revolution at Washington’s side and became his most employed portrait painter in the 1770s and 1780s, making more than fifty portraits of the general. The last that he painted from life, resulted from an unusual series of sittings in 1795, at which several members of the Peale family painted Washington at the same time. The first sitting was shared by Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale. Charles Willson Peale’s brother James (1749-1831) and his sons Raphaelle (1774-1825) and Titian (1780-1798) joined the two artists at the second and third sittings; their portraits have not survived. The unusual sittings led to a much-quoted pun by Gilbert Stuart: “I looked in to see how the old gentleman was getting on with the picture, and to my astonishment, I found the general surrounded by the whole family. They were peeling him, sir. As I went away I met Mrs. Washington, ‘Madam,’ said I, ‘the general’s in a perilous situation.’ ‘How, sir?’ ‘He is beset, madam no less than five upon him at once; one aims at his eye another at his nose another is busy with his hair his mouth is attacked by a fourth and the fifth has him by the button; in short, madam, there are five painters at him, and you who know how much he has suffered when only attended by one, can judge of the horrors of his situation.'”
When George Washington was born, the New World had virtually no artists. Over the course of his life, a cultural transformation would occur. Virtually everyone regarded Washington as America’s indispensable man, and the early painters and sculptors were no exception.
In this painting, John Trumbull duplicated the life-size portrait voted by the Charleston City Council in May 1791, during Washington’s visit to South Carolina. The council intended that the large painting should “hand down to posterity the remembrance of the man to whom they are so much indebted for the blessings of peace, liberty and independence.” Trumbull painted Charleston’s portrait in Philadelphia, the second temporary American capital. He chose to give Washington’s “military character, in the most sublime moment of its exertion the evening previous to the Battle of Princeton,” during the American Revolution. “I told the President my object; he entered into it warmly, and, as the work advanced, we talked of the scene, its dangers, its almost desperation. He looked the scene again, and I happily transferred to the canvass, the lofty expression of his animated countenance, the high resolve to conquer or to perish.” South Carolina Congressman William Loughton Smith, however, “thought the city would be better satisfied with a more matter-of-fact likeness, such as they had recently seen him calm, tranquil, peaceful.” Washington agreed to additional sittings, saying that Trumbull should “keep this picture for yourself . . . and finish it to your own taste.”
Hugh Howard surveys the founding fathers of American painting through their portraits of Washington. Charles Willson Peale was the comrade-in-arms, John Trumbull the aristocrat, Benjamin West the mentor, and Gilbert Stuart the brilliant wastrel. Their images of Washington fed an immense popular appetite that has never faded, Stuart’s image endures today on the $1 bill.
Photographs of canopy fresco in U.S. Capitol dome showing George Washington rising to the heavens with allegorical figures representing war, science, marine, commerce, mechanics, and architecture.
The Painter’s Chair is an eloquent narrative of how America’s first painters toiled to create an art worthy of the new republic, and the hero whom they turned into an icon.