Articles

Who Knew George Washington Was So Artsy?

by Jillian Steinhauer on February 18, 2013

A Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington (c. 1795–96) (image via Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington (c. 1795–96) (image via Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Happy Presidents’ Day, aka happy (almost) birthday George Washington (February 22)! Although today is the day to honor all past US presidents, there’s only one whose birthday sparked the creation of the holiday in the first place: George Washington. Yes, that’s right — you have George to thank for still being in your pajamas right now.

Although Washington isn’t typically known as the artsy president — Dwight Eisenhower painted (and so does George W. Bush); Thomas Jefferson designed his own mansion at Monticello — it turns out he did have cultural proclivities. George Washington’s Eye, a book published last summer by art history professor Joseph Manca, revisits the first president’s legacy and attempts to give him his due, focusing specifically on his interests in art, architecture, and landscape gardening.

Bob Duggan over at Big Think has a nice, in-depth review of the book, which takes the reader through the main points of Manca’s arguments. Washington apparently had more of a hand in designing his estate at Mount Vernon than he’s often credited with: he “saw Mount Vernon as the architectural manifestation of his own persona — strong, simple, distinguished, and uniquely American,” Duggan writes, and was responsible for planning various parts of the the house and grounds, including an awesome 16-sided barn, the Mount Vernon porch, and the orchestration of its beautiful view of the Potomac River through landscaping.

A recreation of George Washington's 16-sided barn (image via Wikipedia)

A recreation of George Washington’s 16-sided barn (image via Wikipedia)

The president was also an art collector with a penchant for landscapes (among his favorite artists were Charles Willson Peale and John Trumbull, “both for their talents and their fine moral character,” says Duggan), choosing the paintings that adorned the walls of Mount Vernon. In fact, Washington’s taste for landscape painting was apparently “highly unusual,” according to Manca, and “foretold of the rise of that genre in the Romantic period and the nationalizing sentiments expressed in the Hudson River School and beyond.” This prompts Duggan to wonder if Washington was the true founding father of American art.

That seems perhaps going a bit far, especially considering that Washington’s taste seems to have been only cautiously innovative, drawing on the past to shape the American future. “Instead of art for art’s sake,” Duggan writes, “Washington deployed art in the struggle to create a new nation both in the sense of aesthetic culture and in the sense of shaping a national identity separate from yet equal to or better than that of the old world.”

That seems an appropriate and worthy goal for the first president of the fledgling republic, and were glad he’s finally getting his due rather than being forever overshadowed by erudite contemporary Thomas Jefferson. The creation of a Washington library, finally, more than 200 years after his death, will probably help with that, too. And it’s perhaps to be expected that people as pragmatically minded as presidents are not going to go ahead and embrace the radical, often off-putting avant-garde. Consider former president Teddy Roosevelt, who, it turns out, reviewed the 1913 Armory Show (whose centennial was yesterday!). The judgement is quite harsh; here’s a small sample:

Probably we err in treating most of these pictures seriously. It is likely that many of them represent in the painters the astute appreciation of the powers to make folly lucrative which the late P. T. Barnum showed with his faked mermaid. There are thousands of people who will pay small sums to look at a faked mermaid; and now and then one of this kind with enough money will buy a Cubist picture, or a picture of a misshapen nude woman, repellent from every standpoint.

Luckily for us, Roosevelt’s politics were a lot more progressive than his views on art.

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  • Chris O

    You keep saying “Washington’s estate at Monticello” but you must mean Mount Vernon.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Thanks for pointing out those typos (due to a Presidents’ Day brain lapse). They’re fixed.

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