James A. Michener Art Museum

Doylestown, PA

215.340.9800

www.michenerartmuseum.org

photo by Jeff Hurwitz



 

Michener Art Museum Presents "An Edward Hicks Sampler" and "Picturing Washington: Icons and Images of America's Founding Father"

 

As part of a regional celebration of American Art, the James A. Michener Art Museum will open two installations on September 25, 1999: An Edward Hicks Sampler, sponsored by Bryce and Jane Sanders, and Picturing Washington: Icons and Images of America's Founding Father. These two small exhibitions provide a diverse selection of paintings that explore these two major figures in American culture.

Edward Hicks (1780 - 1849), one of the best known American folk painters, was a lifelong resident of Bucks County, Pennsylvania and a devoted Quaker missionary and preacher. His images of the Peaceable Kingdom, inspired by the Book of Isaiah's prophetic vision of a peaceful world in which "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid," are among the most beloved in all of American art.

A version of the Peaceable Kingdom (ca. 1837) will be on view, as will Penn's Treaty, The Landing of Columbus, among others. An historically significant and rare portrait of Edward Hicks (one of three known to exist), painted by his cousin Thomas Hicks, is also included. The installation was organized in cooperation with the traveling exhibition, The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks, soon to open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and with the Mercer Museum, also located in Doylestown, which is mounting several Hicks-related exhibits using objects from its collection.

George Washington's career as military hero and public servant is still unparalleled in American history and has accorded him a reverence of near mythological proportions. Following his election as our first president, he progressed from hero to icon, and soon Americans from all walks of life wanted to have an image of the leader they so admired.

The combined talents of many of the leading artists of the time, American and European, met the public demand for images of Washington. This small exhibition, mounted in honor of the 200th anniversary of Washington's death, provides examples of the "icons and images" that have represented our founding father. The show includes one of the most famous Washington likenesses, the "Athenaeum" portrait by Gilbert Charles Stuart, which is used on the dollar bill.

 

Picturing George Washington

Imagine a president besieged by media requests for "just one more picture" to the point where he often complains about it in letters to his friends. Most likely a modern-day president comes to mind, chased by photographers on the tarmac before boarding Air Force One. But the first president who had to resign himself to this fate was the first president: George Washington. The "media" of his day consisted not of photographers, who may inconvenience a leader for a few minutes, but painters and sculptors, who required Washington to pose for several hours at a time and usually for more than one sitting. (left: Portrait of George Washington, oil on canvas, 29 x 23.75 inches, Collection of the Kenbar Group; right: Jennie Brownescombe, Examining the Flag, c. 1890-1910, oil on canvas, 47 x 40 inches, Collection of Claude and Jeanne Harkins)

Washington's career as military hero and public servant is still unparalleled in American history. His exploits in the French and Indian War, his appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and his success at presiding over the framing of the constitution for the fledgling nation accorded him a reverence of nearly mythological proportions. When the time came to choose the first president, Washington was elected "with one voice" -- but only after he declined the title of king. As he progressed from hero to icon, Americans from all walks of life wanted to have an image of the leader they so admired. Soon reproductions of the first president appeared in households from the wealthy to the humble, prompting one foreign diplomat to remark that "every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home."

The combined talents of nearly all the leading artists of the time, American and European met the public demand for images of Washington. The most renowned of this lengthy list included the painters Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), Edward Savage (1761-1817); Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), John Trumbull (1756-1843), and sculptors Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) and Guiseppe Ceracchi (1751-1802). This small exhibition, mounted in honor of the 200th anniversary of Washington's death, provides a few examples of the "icons and images" that have grown up around our founding father. The show includes one of the most famous Washington likenesses, the "Athenaeum" portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Gilbert Stuart and The Portrait of George Washington

For Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), the commission to paint the portrait of George Washington represented the jewel in the crown of a stellar career. Growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, Stuart showed early artistic promise. In 1775, he moved to London to study with the renowned expatriate American painter Benjamin West. While there, he was influenced by the work of the great English portraitists Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds. His own talent quickly matured, and he gained a considerable reputation in England.

Stuart enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle, and in 1792, he returned to the newly formed nation and expected to take his place as America's premier portraitist. Stuart was almost immediately hailed as the country's foremost artist, one whose portraits could capture a person's character while at the same time show the sitter to his or her best advantage. Everyone who could afford it wanted a Stuart portrait, including nearly all of the founding families of the new nation.

Financial difficulties due still plagued Stuart, however, and he sought to gain the prized commission of the day, a portrait of the first president. The ambitious artist worked hard to find an entré, and received a letter of recommendation from Chief Justice John Jay, whose own portrait Stuart had recently painted. In 1795 and 1796, Washington sat for Stuart three times. The portraits were called the Vaughan, the Lansdowne, and the Athenaeum types, each one a different pose. Artists of the eighteenth century often made copies of a particularly popular painting; done by the artist's own hand, these copies were considered original. Ironically, the cameo-like Athenaeum version (the one in this exhibition) was by far the most lucrative for Stuart, and was chosen as the image for the nation's new currency. This painting also ensured Stuart's place in history as it became the definitive likeness of Washington. It is the face that most modem Americans associate with their first president.
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Read more in Resource Library about the Michener Art Museum.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/26/10


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