George Washington: A National Treasure
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George Washington: A National Treasure
Created by Second Story Interactive Studios in Conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery.
Reviewed Jan. 2003.

When spending twenty million dollars to purchase the first version of Gilbert Stuartís famous full-length 1796 portrait of George Washington (known as the Lansdowne portrait) for the National Portrait Gallery in 2001, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation also gave ten million dollars for such educational purposes as an eight-museum tour of the portrait and a Web site. Both offer latter-day counterparts to the distribution of almost a million reproductions of Stuartís Athenaeum portrait of Washington to classrooms in the 1920s. The site is geared to school-age pedagogy, and yet responses to the site on its Town Hall indicate that it has pleased both young and old (and not only teachers).

Featuring an Interactive Portrait, a Town Hall, a section for “Kids,” a chronology of Washingtonís life, the exhibitionís text, and a calendar of exhibition venues, the Web site uses the painting as a device to present Washington as a great man. The way that it does this, however, creates a personage that, to recycle the words of Owen Wister, is “rigid with congealed virtue.” The site does not have much to say about the canvas either as a work of art or as a trace of the convergent interests of a painter, a patron and matron (William and Anne Bingham), and a gift recipient (the marquis of Lansdowne) during a charged moment in Anglo-American relations.

The Interactive Portrait sectionís use of high-quality graphics to interpret each of twelve pictorial elements through what it calls “symbolic,” "biographic,“ and ”artistic" filters is especially promising. It could benefit from an introductory discussion of the portrait as a seamless blend of illusionistic effects and visual metaphors. In addition to teaching about a complex visual experience, such a frame would help visitors to synthesize the sectionís many facts and to reconcile its suggestions that the portrait is both a document and a work of imagination. The other instance of the site representing Stuartís canvas with Web- specific technology is the Kidsí section game that allows visitors to add details to a stripped-down facsimile. These sections rely upon the portraitís aggregation of elements without noting that such multiplicity was a conscious strategy for structuring reception. By including a consideration of how metaphors work in mimetic paintings and by reproducing primary documents legibly, the site could give visitors empowering opportunities to participate in recovering the portraitís historic meanings.

In its first paragraph, the Interactive Portrait section claims that the canvas shows “a Washington for the ages, grand not as a king but as a stalwart representative of democracy.” Notwithstanding the paradox embraced by the proposal that grandeur befits a democracyís representative, it was a republic, not a democracy, that Washington and his peers envisioned. With overtones of other political idioms, the Web site introduction asserts that the portrait is “the most important visual document of our nationís founding.” Thus positioned atop a hierarchy without any discussion of contemporary pictures, the portrait (not to mention its sitter) appears throughout the Web site in ways that are more readily assimilated to the image of a monarchy or an empire than to the critical practices that support a democracy.

David Steinberg
Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
Williamsburg, Virginia