The Carter Blog
A bunch of Georges
Feb 21, 2022
You might wonder why artists seem to be so interested in portraying George Washington. At the Carter, we have no fewer than 30 different images related to the first president and the first First Lady of the United States.
My personal favorite is this snowman—a photograph taken by an unknown photographer around 1913. It’s amazing to think that the imagery of Washington is so consistent that a lump of snow can seem to look like a president just by virtue of a hairstyle.
It’s interesting to note that while there were several portraits of Washington made during his lifetime, the answer to the question of why artists continued to create images of him long after he died has to do with symbolic Americanness. Historically, in times of national unrest, George Washington images multiply—they are meant by artists to stand for history, old-fashionedness, stability, and honesty. The Civil War and the rise of fascism were two such moments of unrest, eras when artists revisited Washington imagery. Even though Washington was a slaveholder, the symbolism was persistent.
Here's Grant Wood’s response to fascism—Parson Weems’ Fable. Weems was the one who created, in his 1800 biography of the first president, the mythic story of Washington chopping down the cherry tree and then telling the truth to his dad about it. Wanting it to be obvious that the boy in the painting was the first president as a youth, Wood plops the signature George portrait-head by Gilbert Stuart—the head that is featured on the dollar bill—onto a kid’s body. One can make the joke that if Washington ever returned to earth, he better look like Gilbert Stuart’s portrait or no one will recognize his ghost! Note that Wood alludes to Washington’s possession of enslaved people by placing Black figures harvesting cherry trees in the background of the painting.
Curators tend to be bitten by the collecting bug themselves when it comes to George’s likeness. I bought this beer can a while back because he was even used to connote honesty and old-fashioned themes in brewing!
For more on this topic, see the Carter's Google Arts & Culture exhibition on George and Martha.