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The Arts Scene: A portrait for the ages

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“George Washington” by Gilbert Stuart, circa 1797.

We have been hearing a great deal about last week’s riot in Washington, D.C., and how it marked the most significant breach of the Capitol since the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 actually lasted from June 18, 1812, until Feb. 18, 1815. It was a military conflict between the United States, Great Britain, and Great Britain’s Native American allies in North America.

During the war, on Aug. 24, 1814, British troops set fire to major rooms in the Capitol, which then housed the Library of Congress, as well as the House, Senate and Supreme Court. The White House, the Navy yard and several American warships were also burned.

According to the White House Historical Society, President James Madison had left the White House on Aug. 22 to meet with his generals just as British troops threatened to enter the Capitol. He asked the first lady, Dolley, to gather important state papers and be prepared to abandon the White House at any moment.

As British troops were seen in the distance, Dolley decided to not be concerned about their personal belongings, but to gather the papers and save a portrait of George Washington.

Since the portrait was securely attached to the wall, she ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas pulled out and rolled up.

Dolley left the White House and found her husband at their predetermined meeting place in the middle of a thunderstorm.

This portrait of George Washington was painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1797, the final year of his presidency.

While other artists had depicted Washington as a military leader, Stuart became the first portraitist to paint Washington as more befitting the country’s first president. What was important to the artist was to have the painting contain many symbolic elements.

Washington holds a sword in his left hand, alluding to his past military service, but the president appears in civilian clothes. The sword belonged to the Comte de Noailles, who fought with Washington in the Revolutionary war.

The red chair is similar to a Louis XVI armchair that Washington had purchased. The artist added a medallion draped in laurel, a symbol of victory. The medallion was painted with 13 red and white stripes and 13 stars in a field of blue.

The rainbow in the upper right corner is a symbol of purity, as the rain had purified the air. Above Washington’s arm, the rainbow continues and glows against the clouds, showing the storm has passed.

On the table are two books: “Federalist,” a reference to the Federalist papers — essays published to support the “Constitution,” and “Journal of Congress.” The books under the table are “General Orders,” “American Revolution” and “Constitution and ByLaws.” These symbolize Washington’s role as commander of the Army and president of the Constitutional Convention.

Stuart believed in physiognomy, that a person’s appearance reflected their temperament and character, so Washington’s face was painted to demonstrate that he was a good man, sincere, firm and generous.

In an advertisement for the first exhibition of this portrait in 1798, it states: “He is surrounded with allegorical emblems of his public life in the service of his country, which are highly illustrative of the great and tremendous storms which have frequently prevailed. These storms have abated, and the appearance of the rainbow is introduced in the background as a sign.”

The painting was returned to the White House after it was rebuilt in 1817.

• David Lynx is executive director of the Larson Gallery at Yakima Valley College. He writes this weekly column for SCENE. Learn more at www.larsongallery.org.

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