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George Washington Portrait by Thomas Sully

Copy of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington painted by Thomas Sully, 1854.
(Museum object #1942.506)

From the ubiquitous portrait on the classroom wall to the dollar bills in our pockets, images of President George Washington are some of the most recognizable symbols of American history. One of the most famous of these depictions is the Athenaeum Portrait, an unfinished study painted by renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart in 1796, a copy of which is featured here.

As one of the last portraits done of Washington from life, Stuart and other artists used it as inspiration for subsequent 19th-century portraits when the country cherished all things related to Washington. In 1852 the Wisconsin Historical Society commissioned this copy of Stuart's original by accomplished painter Thomas Sully, and it is recognized as the first important painting in the public collection of the state of Wisconsin.

As highly educated gentlemen who held their ancestors' history in the highest esteem, the founders of the Wisconsin Historical Society strove from the time of the Society's founding in 1846 to build a collection that would rival that of even the more established Eastern historical societies. Focusing largely on artifacts associated with prominent public figures, the Society actively sought to add to its holdings objects of art, literature, natural history, and theology.

When Society Secretary Lyman Copeland Draper undertook the development of the Society's picture gallery in the early 1850s, he offered a select group of leading American artists honorary Society membership in exchange for paintings. The English-born portraitist Thomas Sully of Philadelphia replied to one such request in 1852, inquiring "will the Society suggest the name of any person I can paint for them? Would a copy of the portrait of Washington by Stuart be acceptable?"

The painting arrived in 1854, and then-Society president General William R. Smith declared it a "faithful and valuable copy." Smith's opinion was credible because he had not only known Gilbert Stuart and personally viewed his original painting, but had also personally met Washington himself. By 1857, the Second Annual Report and Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin cited the Society's picture gallery as "one of the most interesting and valuable features of our collection," and specifically noted Sully's Washington portrait as an important part of that collection.

Conservator Barry Bauman performed extensive treatment on this portrait in 2006 to stabilize the painting and undo previous conservation efforts that had begun to deteriorate. To find out more about Bauman's work on the painting, view his full case study that details the historical context of Sully and Washington portraiture, the mysteries he uncovered in the paint layers, and the extensive measures he took to restore the painting.

[Sources: Thwaites, Reuben Gold, editor. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin (Madison: Democrat Printing Company, 1901); First Annual Report and Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Year 1854 (Madison: Beriah Brown, 1855); Second Annual Report and Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Year 1856 (Madison: Calkins & Webb, 1857); Butts, Porter. Art in Wisconsin (Democrat Printing Company, 1936); Smithsonian Institution National Portrait Gallery website at]


Posted on February 16, 2006

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