The Seeing America Project
1750-1800: learning resources
Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe
Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770, oil on canvas, 152.6 x 214.5 cm (National Gallery of Canada)
Ostentatious plainness, Copley’s portrait of the Mifflins
John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris), 1773, oil on ticking, 156.5 × 121.9 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
- This portrait was carefully calculated to both quietly display the wealth and authority of this couple and to testify to their political campaign of resistance against British taxation. At the time, Mr. Mifflin was a merchant and a budding politician.
- In response to British taxes on imported goods, Thomas Mifflin and other colonists staged a boycott and promoted the “homespun” movement. Showing Sarah Mifflin weaving a decorative fringe would have been a political endorsement of the campaign for domestic manufacturing. However, the artist, John Copley, was actually a royalist on the other end of the American political spectrum.
- As Quakers, the Mifflins refrained from ostentatious luxury, yet subtle elements of clothing and furnishings demonstrate their prosperity. While their attire appears subdued when compared with contemporary fashion (for example, they wear neither jewelry nor silver buttons), the fineness of the cloth reveals its expense.
More to think about
In today’s world of Instagram and Snapchat, selfies are the norm. Discuss how these contemporary images function in similar ways to portraits from the past, and how they might differ.
John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence
John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, 1786–1820, oil on canvas, 20 7/8 x 31 inches / 53 x 78.7 cm (Yale University Art Gallery)
Houdon, George Washington
Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington, 1788–92, marble, 6′ 2″ high (State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia)
- This life-sized sculpture of George Washigton was created to honor the general for his leadership of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). At the time of the commission in 1784, Washington had resigned from his military post and returned to his plantation at Mount Vernon to resume the life of a country gentleman (although by the time the sculpture was completed and installed in 1796, Washington had been elected and completed almost two terms as the first president of the United States).
- For viewers–from 1796 until today–Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpture has symbolized the varied roles that Washington held and the values he reflected for the young nation: the heroism of a military commander, the wisdom and dedication of a democratic statesman, and the self-determined pursuits of a private citizen. These facets of his identity are reflected in the contrasting details of the sculpture, such as the sword and walking stick or the and the plow, and in its placement in the classicizing rotunda of Virginia’s capitol building, the seat of the state’s government.
- Houdon employed in both style and symbolism. The white marble and of the figure are features borrowed from ancient Roman sculpture. And, Washington’s portrayal as a leader who honorably relinquished his power to return to his life as a farmer recalls the revered story of the ancient Roman general Cincinnatus.
- In preparation for carving the sculpture, French artist Houdon traveled to Virginia to make a life cast of Washington’s face and take body measurements. Although Houdon’s work is therefore considered to be one of the most accurate portrayals of the general’s physical likeness, today we recognize the elements of George Washington that a sculpture like this does not reveal. Notably, the fact that he was a slave owner and was at times brutal in his treatment of his enslaved laborers.
Explore resources from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which exists as a museum and historic site today. Topics include portraits of George Washington, the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon, and slavery.
Listen to the podcast, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Read about the history of the treatment of Houdon’s sculpture of George Washington and recent conservation efforts from the Colonial Williamsburg Journal.
Learn about other images of George Washington featured on Smarthistory, including the Lansdowne Portrait and Grant Wood’s Parson Weems’ Fable.
More to Think About
For almost 250 years, portraits of George Washington have represented to viewers his visionary and democratic leadership. The portraits promote a mythology, however, that obscures less admirable details of his power and privilege (namely his status as an enslaver). Can you think of public images of leaders in U.S. government and society today that operate in a similar fashion? What might they owe to the portrayals of George Washington and what stands out as different from that tradition?
Houdon’s portrait of Washington captures the aspirations of a young nation for a particular form of democratic leadership. Compare Houdon’s portrait with that of a newly established leader from a different place and time, operating under a different type of leadership and power. How are they similar and different in terms of style and iconography? Here are a few examples to choose from, or select other examples that you would like to explore:
- Roman, Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E.
- Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon on His Imperial Throne, 1806
- Richard Evans, Portraits of the Caribbean’s first Black king and prince, c. 1816
- Portraits of Elizabeth I: Fashioning the Virgin Queen, 16th century
- Queen Lili’uokalani’s accession photograph
Note: When making comparisons among these portraits, be sure to consider the unique historical and cultural context of each, refraining from assumptions that might impose bias on the subject.
Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne Portrait
Gilbert Stuart, Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, 1796, oil on canvas, 96 × 60″ / 243.8 × 152.4 cm (National Portrait Gallery)