This post comes to us from Chelsea Dickson, Curatorial Intern.
In honor of the anniversary of our nation’s independence, we would like to draw your attention to a particularly fascinating work from the permanent collection, currently on display in the Flora Humphrey Bentley Gallery. In the corner, you will find a familiar portrait of our first president, George Washington. While at first glance it looks like an image printed in virtually every U.S. History textbook, it is when looking closer that things get interesting.
This portrait is a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s (1755-1828) unfinished Atheneum portrait of Washington, so-called because it was purchased by the Boston Atheneum to support Stuart’s poverty stricken family after his death. The original Atheneum portrait was commissioned by Mary Washington but Stuart liked the way he had captured Washington’s likeness so much that he kept it as a model, never delivering it to Mrs. Washington.
The NBMAA copy is actually painted on a glass surface in reverse so that the paint is on the back side. When working on a reverse painting on glass, an artist must paint finishing details first and then complete the background gradually in layers. This means that when painting the eyes for example, the artist would have to paint the pupil before the iris.
Moreover, this portrait of one of the most revered Americans in history was not even painted in the United States! It was painted in China, most likely in the port city of Canton, where reverse glass paintings made for sale in Europe and North America were common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cantonese craftsmen could create replicas of original paintings based on oils, etchings or even sketches for exportation westward and subsequent resale. It is well-documented that two of Stuart’s Washington portraits were taken to China, and based on the attention to detail and the similar dimensions of the originals and their reverse painted counterpoints, it is evident that the Cantonese craftsmen were working directly from the originals.
In the early 18th century, the cult of Washington was so large that there was a great clamoring for images of the late president. Gilbert Stuart himself painted an estimated seventy-five portraits of Washington in the Atheneum style (with Washington facing left). As reverse paintings on glass were inexpensive compared to the $150 paid in the 1820s (approximately $3600 in today’s money) for copies of the Atheneum portrait painted by Stuart himself, these Chinese versions greatly appealed to upper-middle class households. They also happened to be exceptionally well-rendered. In the case of the Museum’s Washington portrait, the artist had paid even more attention to detail in his rendering of the president than did Stuart. Every curl of Washington’s wig is meticulously painted as is the lace at his collar and the ribbon in his hair.
Attributed to Foeiqua, one of the few Cantonese artists specializing in reverse painting on glass identified by name (most were anonymous), this portrait of Washington is one of several known reverse paintings on glass of the president. Many of them were brought to and sold in Philadelphia by merchant John E. Sword. Eventually, in 1802, Gilbert Stuart sued Sword for copyright infringement and won the lawsuit.
In the Museum’s portrait of Washington, the eyes are a deep blue, far too blue for any natural eye color. When Stuart first executed his original portraits of Washington in the Atheneum style, George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s step grandson, remarked how blue the eyes were, adding, “In a hundred years they will have faded to the right color.” The bold blue has not yet faded in the eyes of the Museum’s Washington nor has the legacy Washington left upon this country.
Have you noticed this portrait of Washington at the NBMAA? What issues of piracy and copyright does this painting bring up? How could that relate to current problems in the arts and entertainment industries?
 Granoff, Phyllis. “Reverse Glass Paintings from Gujarat in a Private Canadian Collection: Documents of British India.” Artis Asia, Vol. 40, No. 2/3 (1978), pp. 204-214.
 Barratt, Carrie Rebora and Miles, Ellen G. Gilbert Stuart. Catalog for the exhibition “Gilbert Stuart” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and The National Portrait Gallery, Washington. Yale University Press (New Haven and London), 2004. pp. 132.
 Ibid., pp. 157.