WASHINGTON — One of the most famous portraits of George Washington will soon get a high-tech examination and face-lift of sorts with its first major conservation treatment in decades.
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has begun planning the conservation and digital analysis of the full-length “Lansdowne” portrait of the first president that was painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796, museum officials told The Associated Press. The 8-foot-by-5-foot picture is considered the definitive portrait of Washington as president after earlier images in military uniform.
Work will begin in 2016 to delicately remove a yellowed varnish to reveal the original colors and details intended by the artist. The painting will remain on view until then. Once it’s taken to a lab, conservators will use digital x-rays and infrared imagery for the first time to examine Stuart’s work and changes he made beneath the painting’s surface. Some of the work will be completed within view of the public.
“We are preserving this painting forever, for posterity, and at this point in its history, it needs some attention,” said chief curator Brandon Brame Fortune. “It’s still very, very stable. But we want to be sure our visitors are seeing it looking its absolute best.”
Bank of America provided a recent grant to fund the conservation project, along with education programs around the picture.
The 18-month conservation project will be part of a major “refreshing” of the galleries that hold the nation’s presidential portraits to give more historical information about each president’s achievements, challenges and events from their time in office, said museum Director Kim Sajet. Plans call for the improvements to be completed in time for the museum’s 50th anniversary in 2018.
The Lansdowne portrait has been a centerpiece at the Smithsonian since 1968, and about 1 million visitors see it each year.
For his first full-length portrait, Washington was dressed in a black velvet suit, his official dress for receiving the public as a civilian leader, rather than showing him as a soldier or king. It’s based on earlier European portraits of aristocrats and dignitaries.
The president sat for Stuart in Philadelphia and helped determine how he would be portrayed. The resulting picture was celebrated in the U.S. and Europe. It was originally painted for the Marquis of Lansdowne, who had been a British supporter of the colonies during the Revolutionary War.
Stuart created three replicas of the portrait, one of which is held by the White House. It was made famous when Dolley Madison saved the painting when the British burned the White House 200 years ago.
The original Lansdowne painting remained in Britain for most of its history until the 1960s when it was loaned to the Smithsonian. The Portrait Gallery then bought the painting in 2001 for $20 million with a donation from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.
Conservators wanted to clean and restore the painting for many years, but the museum was reluctant to take it off view. The painting is in good condition but does have problems, including paint losses in Washington’s black coat, said CindyLou Molnar, the museum’s head of conservation. The biggest problem is the heavy yellow varnish that disguises details in the painting.
“It will take me quite a while to figure out what it will take to safely remove the yellow resinous varnish and not disturb the actual paint surface,” Molnar said.
In 2001, film X-rays of the painting revealed some changes Stuart made in the picture. In one case, he moved a quill ink pen on the table beside Washington. The images showed how Stuart was having trouble adjusting the figure and objects in his original portrait, Molnar said. New technology will provide a clearer image beneath the surface. It’s not clear, though, whether any new discoveries will be made.
“Anything we can gain in terms of materials and techniques that were used only adds to the picture of how Gilbert Stuart worked,” Molnar said.
The premiere portraitist of his day, Stuart packed symbols of American history into his depiction of Washington. Furniture in the picture is carved with the U.S. seal and eagles. Books in the painting reference the Constitution, Congress and the Federalist papers. In the windows behind Washington, a rainbow appears in the sky behind dark clouds.
“The storm clouds had to do with the passing of the American Revolution,” Fortune said, “and the rainbow signified a new beginning for the new republic.”
BRETT ZONGKER, Associated Press