Like all good Americans, I admire George Washington. So when I saw that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) would be featuring an exhibit on the father of our country, I gassed up the car and drove an hour to L.A. to spend a Sunday afternoon there.
When going to a museum, I love to look for the Americana-labyrinths of original portraits and busts that honor the memory of our great statesmen. The Met in New York has some great pieces: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, and, of course, G.W. And anyone who's been to Washington D.C. knows it's a law that everyone who holds political office must at some point be given a statue somewhere in that city of monuments.
But here finally was to be an homage devoted exclusively to George Washington. Maybe this American icon hasn't fallen so far out of favor. Sure, no one is voting to change the name of our nation's capital, but once in awhile some fool gets it in his head to start renaming high schools. Washington may have been a model of gentlemanly virtue and may have been integral to establishing the only nation in human history dedicated to equality and liberty, but he was a slaveholder and he waited until after his death to free his slaves.
Arriving at LACMA, I paid my few dollars, walked through the doors, past the gift shop, and around the corner. I was ready to embark upon George Washington: A National Treasure. It didn't take long. Instead of a labyrinth, I had a single room. Instead of an exhibit, I had two paintings. Two! I have more portraits of Washington in my home. (Although I admit they aren't eight feet high.)
The rest of the room was filled out with some background information on Washington and his portraits and a couple of pieces of colonial-style furniture. Outside the room, computers were set up for kids to learn more about Washington and his times. A short hallway displayed low-quality modern work that incorporated Washington's image, of which the less said the better. I turned back to have a closer look at LACMA's two painting exhibit.
The first is the famous "Landsdowne" portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. This is the Washington we know from grade school textbooks and one-dollar bills. The face is unmistakable. The powdered wig, the clenched jaw bulging with false teeth. Dressed entirely in black, except for the buckles on his shoes and the lace at his throat and cuffs, he stands with feet firmly planted on the ground, left arm clutching a downward-pointed ceremonial sword, right arm extended theatrically. His surroundings are elegant, but not luxurious. It is the portrait of a head-of-state: stern, stolid, imposing, with a delicate mix of the magisterial and the republican. It is meant to show that the United States has taken its place among the nations of the earth, but will abide no king. Still, it looks a little forced, a little too posed. Washington is awkward, like he's trying too hard to impress those other nations.
Although the "Landsdowne" is the one touring, and being promoted by LACMA, it was the second painting that I enjoyed more. It is perhaps less well known, and certainly a less typical image of Washington. Painted by Charles Wilson Peale, it shows Washington at the Battle of Princeton, 1779. What is most striking is how remarkably relaxed he appears to be. Wearing his navy and gold general's uniform with a bright blue sash, one leg crossed in front of the other, Washington leans jauntily on a canon after the battle. America may have declared independence in 1776, but Washington has given those words some bite. He has made the strongest empire of the day cry uncle, and it shows. His face has a bit of a smile on it. He is relaxed and in control. He exudes all the confidence and quiet dignity that says, Yes, I'm one bad hombre. It is the portrait of an American.
George Washington: A National Treasure runs through March 9, 2003 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Charles Wilson Peale's Washington can be seen regularly at the Huntington Library in Pasadena.