A little piece of America is coming home to stay. That's a quaint, patriotic sounding way of putting it, though it's not too accurate. Actually, it's not very little and it has been in this country since 1968. The 205-year-old painting is some eight feet tall and five feet wide and it has been on loan to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington for decades; but thanks to a $30 million gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, Gilbert Stuart's original Landsdowne Portrait of George Washington will at last belong to this country.
If the Landsdowne designation doesn't ring a bell, think Dolley Madison, think about the burning of the White House in 1814, and think about the portrait of Washington she saved from its walls just hours before. That was a copy of Stuart's Landsdowne. The painting depicts a full-length figure of Washington in civilian clothes - a black velvet suit - standing amid classical splendour, gesturing dramatically toward a table laden with books and writing materials. The handsomely bound books bear the titles American Revolution, Constitution, Federalist, and Laws of the United States. It was not Stuart's first portrait of Washington nor his last. It was not even his best; but it and the two copies he made later are probably the most famous.
The painting was originally commissioned by William Bingham, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, in 1796. Washington, who was a very reluctant subject, quite likely owed the man a favour. Some speculate that Bingham's wife, Anne, may have been responsible for persuading the president to pose. In any case, the portrait has long been highly regarded on both sides of the Atlantic. The painting gained its name from the fact that it was a gift to the first Marquis of Landsdowne, a former British Prime Minister and a strong supporter of American causes in Parliament during the Revolution. The painting passed down through many hands in the ensuing 200 years, inherited, sold, and resold until it eventually came to be owned by Lord Dalmeny of London.
Though the portrait has been in this country on display at the National Portrait Gallery for many years (the gallery is currently closed for renovation), in January of this year, Dalmeny notified the Smithsonian Institution that he was willing to sell them the painting for $20 million if they could raise the cash by April 1, 2001. Otherwise, it would go on the auction block. The Reynolds commitment came through on March 13. An additional $4 million is being used to construct a suitable space for the permanent display of the work while $6 million will go for a three-year nation-wide tour and associated education programs.
Though the painting presents Washington as somewhat shorter and stockier than history records, it ranks near the top of everyone's list as one of the most important works of art in American history. Some even see it as standing alongside the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as one of our nation's most important historic icons. With its strong, idealised, expansive pose, the portrait projects a strikingly optimistic message of strength, stability, resolution, and calm determination very much in keeping with our current national resolve as a nation. The painting, which is said to be in excellent condition, will undergo X-ray analysis later this year before beginning a tour of Western cities in February, 2002.