This late 18th-century painting of the first President of the United States is often one of the works most visitors are eager to see. The painting’s history is a unique one. George Washington did sit for a portrait by Gilbert Stuart, which resulted in three primary portraits: the Landsdowne (a full-length portrait of the President standing), the Vaughan (a waist-length portrait of the right side of the President), and the Athenaeum (featuring the President’s left side), of which the portrait in the Museum’s collection is an example.
A familiar portrayal of the President, and one that has been indelibly captured in collective memory as the image of Washington, it is perhaps most distinguished not only by the ruddy hue of the subject’s face, but by his noticeably swollen mouth and lips. Historians attribute this feature to recent dental work Washington, who was plagued by dental issues all his life, had just completed at the time.
While legend holds that Washington had wooden teeth, the truth is that the President’s dentures were made from human teeth, including those extracted from enslaved peoples owned by Washington himself. While there is some record to indicate that Washington financially compensated the enslaved men and women for the teeth taken from them, as enslaved people, they would likely have had no option to refuse the request.
For more information about Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of President Washington and Washington’s history with slavery, visit www.mountvernon.org.