How an Unfinished Portrait of Washington Ended Up on the Dollar Bill

Under the rafters of a Philadelphia barn-turned-art studio in 1796, two men sat facing each other. One, impatient and uncomfortable, tensed his swollen lips and cheeks as he struggled to keep his ill-fitting dentures in place. The other, younger and quite a bit nervous, tried his best to keep his companion entertained with a steady patter of conversation.

The first man, George Washington, was the near-mythic first president of the United States, one of the founding fathers of a nascent nation. Across from him, brandishing his paintbrush, was Gilbert Stuart—a debt-ridden, volatile, artistic genius—who, by the end of this session, would paint the most famous portrait of Washington in the world.  

Stuart had been born a few hundred miles away from this makeshift studio in 1755, in what was then the colony of Rhode Island. The son of a Scottish settler who made snuff in the family basement, young Gilbert honed his precocious artistic talents under the guidance of the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander. In 1775, amidst the clamor of the American Revolution, Gilbert relocated to Europe to forge a career as a portraitist. He found scant success until the highly sought-after American-born painter Benjamin West took the younger artist under his wing. Under West’s tutelage, surrounded by the work of the foremost British portraitists, Stuart began to blossom.  

After leaving London for Dublin in 1787, “Stuart came promptly to dominate the portrait market,” Philip McEvansoneya, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, says. “His main competitor, Robert Home, left Ireland for India as a consequence.” However, Stuart’s mismanagement of finances soon undermined his burgeoning triumph as a portrait painter.

Under threat of debtor’s prison from Irish authorities, Stuart decided to set sail back to his native country. In a letter to his friend, painter J.D. Herbert, Stuart wrote: “There I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits…I will repay my English and Irish creditors. To Ireland and England I shall bid adieu.”  

Stuart stepped back onto American soil in 1793. After working for a year in New York, making portraits of some of America’s newest elite—including John Jay, the chief justice of the Supreme Court—Stuart finally travelled the 80 miles to Philadelphia, the capital of the United States. Armed with a letter of introduction from his new patron, the chief justice, Stuart left his calling card at Washington’s house in 1794.

A year later, the President sat for Stuart for the first time. Although by all accounts Washington was sullen and cross, annoyed at having to sit for so long, Stuart—who was known for his temper as much as his charm, and who often refused to finish a work if he found the sitter dull or unattractive—brought his best behavior to these sessions. His first painting, known today as the Vaughan portrait, shows Washington from the waist up: Stuart painted him proud and tall and lit from behind, as if haloed.

But the Vaughan portrait is not the most famous, nor are the approximately 100 other portraits Stuart eventually painted of Washington. It is the Athenaeum portrait, a work he began in 1796 at the bequest of Washington’s wife Martha, that has seared a specific image of the first president into the collective national consciousness. An engraving of Washington’s portrait as it appears in the Athenaeum version has been used for the one-dollar bill since the early 1900s (although modified slightly, so that Washington faces the other way). The painted version can be found on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the printed version appears in wallets and tip jars.

Stuart never finished the Athenaeum portrait, but he saw some power in the face he’d painted. He asked the president if he could keep the unfinished version to use as a basis for further portraits. A spendthrift who was perpetually in debt, Stuart used his later Washington portraits modeled on the Athenaeum version to earn money, capitalizing on a market hungry for images of the country’s beloved leader and eager for works by the now-celebrated painter.

Some of Stuart’s later renown, McEvansoneya notes, can be explained by “having been, effectively, the court portraitist to the first five U.S. presidents.” But he says Stuart’s “flashy fluid brushwork and richness of color” also deserves some credit—techniques that were later used in “swagger portraits,” a name coined for the grand, idealized portraits of the 18th- and 19th-century rich and famous. Stuart’s portraits of other members of the American elite, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, tend toward this style.  

But what is it about the Athenaeum portrait in particular—an unfinished painting of an older Washington—that is so persistent?

  • Image via Wikimedia Commons.

    Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Physiognomy—the theory that a person’s physical features reflect their internal character—became massively popular in the Victorian Age. Stuart, a product of a culture that believed intrinsically in the idea that looking at someone’s face revealed something about their personality, was himself a believer. While physiognomy is now widely discredited as a pseudoscience that often bolstered racist stereotypes, perhaps the popularity of Stuart’s portraits can be attributed to the extent to which his contemporaries believed he had truly suggested the personality of the president.

Swiss-born physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater, who wrote the immensely popular book Essays on Physiognomy in 1741, actually used an engraving of Stuart’s first portrait of Washington as an illustration for an edition of his text. His caption read: “Everything in this face announces the good man, a man upright, of simple manners, sincere, firm, reflecting and generous.”

Alternatively, scholar Dorinda Evans is one of the main advocates of the theory that Stuart suffered from bipolar disorder. His work, she claims, reflects the alternatively manic or depressive episodes that he suffered as a result of the affliction. Evans argues that several of Stuart’s finest paintings, including the Athenaeum portrait, were created while the artist was in “a state of increased awareness or very mild mania.” The vivacity and vibrancy of the president in this portrait, then, could be a consequence of Stuart’s emotional state.  

Whatever the case, Washington’s face, as Stuart put it to canvas, has become the visual symbol of the dollar—and a work of art that passes between people every day.


—Gabrielle Hick