Gilbert Stuart, George Wasington and a horse.
December 4, 2006 8:55 AM   Subscribe

I'm working on a research paper on 19th century American Art, more specifically Gilbert Stuart's portrait "George Washington on Dorchester Heights' done in 1806....and I've hit a wall. I'm trying to find any information on Stuart's motivation behind depicting George Washington next to a giant horse's rump and I can't seem to locate any official (or unofficial) sources that address that.

In the interest of saving time here, I've already searched online and the closest thing I've found was a dead link on this page.

I've also searched offline going as far as looking into the object and artist files at the Museum of Fine Arts which owns the painting. The only mention there is who the horse used for the painting belonged to.

You have to wonder why anyone would want to be depicted next to a horse's ass. I know Washington disliked sitting for portraits and wasn't particularly fond of Stuart, but is that the reason he painted him like that?

I also know that he copied the pose from an earlier portrait of Washington by Trumbull. Washington liked horses hence the 'better' looking Athenaeum portrait.

I have a bunch more background info but .... what's with the horse?
Any info is appreciated as are suggestions for possible sources of information. Thank you.
posted by eatcake to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you tried asking Joan of Art?
posted by arco at 9:28 AM on December 4, 2006

Also, the librarian at Mount Vernon might be able to shed some light on the subject if it was a decision made my Washington himself, rather than Stuart.
posted by arco at 9:33 AM on December 4, 2006

Flexner's biography (1955) suggests it was more Stuart's lack of experience painting animals.
posted by steef at 9:42 AM on December 4, 2006

Also, I gleaned from the article "'A Young Man Impatient to Distinguish Himself': The Vîcomte de Noailles as Portrayed by Gilbert Stuart" (Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin NS, Vol. 29, no. 7. (March 1971): 327-337), that everybody got painted that way, because that's how to stand when mounting a horse.
posted by steef at 9:57 AM on December 4, 2006

This is rather tangentially related, but I have a pair of colleagues whose goal is one day to author the definitive book of horses' rear ends in art -- they're ubiquitous from the get-go, and I agree with steef that it's likely because of the horse-mounting/grooming angle.

Washington's horse was one of his major attributes, and it may be that by showing him in the process of mounting, Stuart was making reference to Washington as a man of action (about to mount his horse and ride away to more important things).
posted by obliquicity at 12:41 PM on December 4, 2006

Related to Arco's recommendation of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Ask Joan of Art service you might also try contacting the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:14 PM on December 4, 2006

Response by poster: I haven't had a chance to fully check out all of the suggestions yet but I appreciate everyone's generous help. They're all great answers so there's no point in marking all of them as best!

I didn't think there would that much politics behind one painting, I should've known better. 19th century American Art is still relatively new to me so I still can't believe that I'm finding it so exciting :)
posted by eatcake at 3:23 PM on December 4, 2006

I went to google the picture because I had a pet theory that maybe the picture had been cropped down, like many oil paintings have been (doesn't look like it since the horse's head is there as well as its ass) .

On the way, I found this cool short article on Washington portraiture.
posted by Rumple at 4:09 PM on December 4, 2006

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