Monday 11 December 2017

What Lies Beneath: The Athenaeum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

The Athenaeum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, oil on canvas 1796, courtesy MFA Boston

The Athenaeum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart.
The Athenaeum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Niall MacMonagle

For 15 minutes, 30 years ago, all across America, there stood a human, long, love-in of a wall; six and a half million people held hands from sea to shining sea. Many in that human chain on Sunday, May 25 1986, donated $10 to charity. Liza Minnelli, Dionne Warwick, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, and Robin Williams were among the celebs who took part. Looking back now at Hands Across America reminds us that kindness, as the Dalai Lama says, is the only religion. And then you're distracted by 1980s fashion disasters: mom jeans and big hair.

There's another wall being planned, of course, in Mr Trump's crazed imagination: a wall along the Mexican border, all 1,989 miles of it, the most frequently crossed international border in the world. Emma Lazarus's sonnet, written in 1883 and inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, was an open invitation: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"; it welcomed the disadvantage, the dispossessed. Well, not anymore, if Donald John trumps it. Who will be America's 45th President? We'll know on November 8, but America's first President, George Washington, is still a powerful, admired presence. Washington DC is named for him, his portrait is on the mighty dollar bill, and this unfinished portrait by Gilbert Stuart is deservedly famous.

Stuart, born Rhode Island, 1755, lived in England, Ireland, and, returning to America aged 38, he painted Washington over 120 times, and the next five Presidents of the United States. In this painting, named The Athenaeum Portrait, dated 1796, and painted from life during Washington's second term, is the source of all Stuart's other portraits of Washington, who retired from the Presidency in 1797 and died two years later.

The powdered wig tells us that it's eighteenth century, but nothing else. The bare, blotchy, cloudy stretches of canvas look cool and funky to a modern eye; the focus is on the sitter's wise and steady gaze.

Will Trump get to build? Has he not heard of Robert Frost's "Something there is that doesn't love a wall"? One thing's for sure, it'll be a bad day for America if he does, yet another bad hair day for its architect.

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