ActivePaper Archive George Washington portrait shines - Oklahoman, 12/26/2003

Stately paintings: Humanizing America’s leaders

George Washington portrait shines

Portrait takes tour of nation, stops in city until April 11

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BY JACONNA AGUIRRE, THE OKLAHOMAN Earlier this month, schoolchildren walk past artwork in the “George Washington: A National Treasure” exhibit at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 oil on canvas portrait of George Washington is on display at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

A superb full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) from the National Portrait Gallery is the star, but a local satellite exhibit provides the painting with a good supporting cast in a new show at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

It is perhaps Washington’s straight-backed but undomineering bearing and openhanded gesture, rather than the ceremonial sword he holds at his side or the symbols of office that surround him, that make Stuart’s 1796 portrait so effective.

Further humanizing the effect of the commanding yet not intimidating portrait is a letter, on view in a display case, from Washington to Stuart, written April 11, 1796, informing the artist that “I am under promise to Mrs. Bingham to set for you tomorrow at nine o’clock.”

On view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington since 1968, the portrait actually belonged to a prominent British family and was recently saved from potential auction by a $30 million gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

Offering visitors a chance to see the famous painting first-hand, the Smithsonian’s touring “George Washington: A National Treasure” exhibit is scheduled for stops in Little Rock, Ark., and New York City following its run in Oklahoma City.

Supplying a good context for the Stuart portrait, and only on view at the Oklahoma City museum, is a satellite exhibit of paintings, engravings, prints, sculptures and other objects organized by Dr. Hardy George, the city museum’s chief curator.

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) offers us a 1772 oil of a 40-year-old “George Washington as (a) Colonel in the Virginia Militia,” looking bland and almost jaunty as he jams one hand into his long red vest in pre-Napoleonic fashion.

Not to be taken nearly as seriously is a 1775 English mezzotint of Washington on horseback that doesn’t look much like him (because there was no portrait available to copy).

Other works in the satellite exhibit include two ridiculously romantic mid-19th century oils (done after Emanuel Leutze) of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” standing nobly upright while crewmen push away blocks of ice.

British artist Sir Thomas Lawrence (1739-1830) contributes a subtle, deftly executed oil of General Sir Charles Grey in a painting done in 1797, “some twenty years after his important victory over the American forces ... near Philadelphia.”

Equally evocative is an oil portrait by American artist John Trumbull (1756-1843), copied from Giuseppe Ceracchi, that gets across the nobility, intelligence and intensity of Alexander Hamilton, done in 1806, two years after he was shot by Aaron Burr in a duel.

Other excellent paintings include two oil portraits, both done in 1773, by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) and British artist Joseph Blackburn (1720-1780).

Copley captures the frank, forceful expression of James Gambier, a British Lord of the Admiralty, leaning on a walking stick, while Blackburn depicts “An English Militia Officer,” looking over one shoulder, casually bracing himself with his sword.

A 1780 marble bust by French artist Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) also succeeds in conveying the sagacity of Benjamin Franklin with a quiet conviction that not even the artificial convention of his being attired in Roman robes can undermine.

Educational as well as artistically stimulating, the touring “George Washington: A National Treasure” show and the museum’s accompanying satellite exhibit are well-worth visiting during their run through April 11.