Stuart's portraits were iconic - and insightful

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What do Gilbert Stuart and Andy Warhol have in common? An understanding of what constitutes an icon. In Stuart's case, George Washington was the iconic image that established his reputation. Stuart painted three types of Washington portraits and, in response to their popularity, many replicas.

One type is called "The Athenaeum Portrait" because, paired with a likewise unfinished head of Martha Washington, it was acquired by the Boston Athenaeum after Stuart's death. In his lifetime, Stuart never allowed these portraits out of his studio. By some accounts, Mrs. Washington was displeased by this, since she had commissioned them. But Stuart considered this head of the president to be a better portrait than his previous one. He made about 75 finished head-and-shoulders replicas of it, according to the catalog of the Gilbert Stuart exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, through Jan. 16.

The third "type" Stuart painted is named after the English aristocrat for whom he painted it, the first Marquis of Lansdowne. The original (at right) presents Washington in 1796 standing in an oratorical pose. It was quickly seen as the archetypal representation of Washington. It symbolizes him in his civilian role, not as a general.

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That it was painted for an English client is perfectly apt, since it is a manifestation of aristocratic and royal British portraiture, dating back to Van Dyck's portraits of Charles I and to Holbein's iconic portrait of Henry VIII. It followed that tradition in its recognition of its subject's heroic, historical significance. Yet it doesn't seem to flatter, a characteristic of Stuart's strength as a portraitist. Its honesty comes from Stuart's belief in the interpretation of physiognomy and his preference for direct observation over idealization.

Stuart concluded that Washington's face revealed "a tremendous temper" kept "under wonderful control." Washington, when told this, "with something like a smile ... remarked, 'He is right.'"

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