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.