Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lansdowne Portrait

As part of our ongoing 1812 Project, we took a quick trip down to the National Portrait Gallery to check out the famous Lansdowne Portrait. Painted in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart, this portrait of George Washington got its name because it was a gift to the Marquis of Lansdowne, an English supporter of American independence.

So what's the connection to the War of 1812? Well, as the British marched toward Washington, DC in August of 1814 to sack the young nation's capital, there was a rush to spirit away irreplaceable treasures such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. History tells us that Dolly Madison, the wife of President James Madison (who himself rode around the chaotic capital on horseback until fleeing over the Potomac), had the Lansdowne Portrait cut from its frame and carried away for safekeeping.

As for the painting itself, there are some nice touches. A symbolic rainbow breaking through a stormy sky. A pretty cool ink reservoir for the first president's quill pen. All in all, though, the most compelling attribute of the painting (at least for this amateur) is the fact that it was deemed important enough to warrant special attention at a crucial moment in early American history. I can just imagine the frame being smashed and the painting being hastily prepared and shipped away while panic reigned outside on the streets of DC. And here it is, two centuries later, being admired by visitors from all around the world, just blocks away from the wall where it almost met a fiery destruction.