Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 portrait of George Washington. Photo: the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC.
One of the most iconic images of the first president of the United States is ready for its close-up. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, has announced plans to conserve and X-ray Gilbert Stuart’s iconic 1796 Lansdowne portrait of George Washington in 2016.
Conservators hope to remove a coat of yellowed varnish from the painting’s surface, which has become discolored and uneven over the years. The treatment, funded by Bank of America, is expected to take a full year, following a six month period of analysis of different types of X-rays and digital imagery.
The high-tech examination will mean that the monumental, eight-by-five foot painting will be missing from the museum’s galleries for a time, although some parts of the restoration process will take place in the lab at the Lunder Conservation Center, which visitors can view from behind glass walls.
In earlier portraits, Washington had been depicted in his military uniform, reflecting his position of general during the Revolutionary War. In contrast, the Lansdowne portrait is considered the definitive depiction of Washington as president, setting the standard for the newly created office by portraying him as a humble elected official, rather than a regal figure born into his position.
The restoration of the Stuart painting is scheduled to be completed in time for the museum’s 50th anniversary, in 2018. It will be accompanied by a refreshing of the Gallery’s permanent collection exhibition “America’s Presidents,” which has had Washington as its centerpiece since opening in 1968. Initially a long-term loan, the painting was finally acquired by the Gallery in 2001.
“We are preserving this painting forever, for posterity, and at this point in its history, it needs some attention,” chief curator Brandon Brame Fortune told the Guardian. “It’s still very, very stable. But we want to be sure our visitors are seeing it looking its absolute best.”