The Mona Lisa of Mount Vernon

Photo: R.G. Ojeda/Reunion des Musees Nationau/Art Resource (Mona Lisa); Courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We’re on familiar terms with all but one of the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson is the brilliant idealist of Monticello, for example, John Adams the sober Yankee realist. But George Washington, the most celebrated of them all, keeps to himself. No matter how many biographers elucidate his character, he remains the remote father, a mystery at the heart of the American experience. Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished George Washington, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the definitive account of the indefinable—the Mona Lisa of American art.

What is the great man thinking? What do his eyes conceal? The inscrutable gaze in Stuart’s portrait, as in Leonardo’s famous painting, deflects all questions back to the viewer. Washington seems to ask Americans what they will finally make of themselves: Americans must fill in the spaces, finish the picture, complete the monument. At the moment, contemporary culture is obsessed with the Founding Fathers, as the parade of new biographies suggests. Such an obsession regularly recurs in American history, often when the country worries that it is becoming small-minded and failing the ideals of its founders. Stuart’s president, forever unfinished, is a symbol of America itself—a mysterious work in process.

Stuart (1755–1828) did not, of course, set out with this ambition: His special gift was for capturing what Washington never quite yielded to him, the idiosyncratic play of personal expression in a face. The retrospective now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a Who’s Who of the early American republic. After honing his skills in London and Dublin, Stuart lived in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston, where he brought his milieu vividly to life, much as the photographer Nadar resurrected mid-nineteenth-century Paris. You can meet Catherine Brass Yates, interrupted at her sewing, holding needle and thread with exacting precision—pinky at alert—to appraise the stitch of your character. You can see the thought forming in James Madison’s eyes. John Adams, rheumy-eyed and gnarled at 89, has lost none of his purposeful clarity.

The catalogue of the exhibition (which was organized by Carrie Rebora Barratt of the Met and Ellen G. Miles of the National Portrait Gallery) contains a lively analysis of the paintings, people, and era. But the artist’s portrayal of Washington inevitably, if unfairly, absorbs most people’s attention. A strong market existed for Washington’s portrait, but apart from the money to be earned making replicas, Stuart clearly regarded the president as a personal challenge. He was fascinated by his features, telling a friend they revealed “the strongest and most ungovernable of passions, and had he been born in the forests … [he] would have been the fiercest man amongst the savage tribes,” which, in turn, made his legendary self-command all the more admirable. Stuart did not find the sittings easy. Washington generally refused to be drawn out by the chatty Stuart, preferring to cultivate his private thoughts. And his artificial teeth gave an inexpressive set to his mouth.

Stuart painted three different versions of Washington, from each of which he made copies. In one room at the Met you can therefore see a roomful of related Georges, a set of variations on a theme that could be the ancestor to Warhol’s shutterbug Marilyn. Although Stuart’s “Lansdowne portrait” is an important cultural document—an act of oratorical visual rhetoric commemorating Washington’s public role—it’s also a fairly lifeless, mediocre image. Of the two smaller portrait cycles, the “Athenaeum” is more evocative than the “Vaughan,” especially, of course, the unfinished painting Stuart retained to make copies. The portrait was originally conceived as one of a pair depicting Washington and his wife, Martha, neither of which Stuart ever completed. Martha, placed inside a circular window of paint, resembles a lively wren peering out from a birdhouse. Her husband is … what? His eyes will follow you around the room.

Gilbert Stuart
At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art.
Through January 16.

The Mona Lisa of Mount Vernon