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George Washington - How Truthful are His Painted Portraits?

February 15, 2015

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Why commission an artist to paint your portrait? If, like Washington, the camera does not lie, why not have a photograph taken instead?

George Washington figures in the tale of a cherry tree and a little boy with a new tomahawk. The fable illustrates the virtue of truthfulness. By naming the hero of American Independence, the author helped children remember the story's moral.

  • In the same way, artists making portraits of Washington sometimes dramatised their works with visual references to classical Greek or Roman times. On Washington's birthday, a question comes to mind.

In the 21st century, might it be better to get a photograph taken instead of commissioning a painted portrait?
Some of the most notable artists of the period, painted many hundreds of portraits of Washington. Since the camera wasn't invented until 1826, no photographs exist for comparison.

  • In 1932, a series of bicentennial stamps reproduced  images of Washington from charcoal drawings made during his life.

Perhaps the bust displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. comes closest to matching the reality. This head-and-shoulders sculpture is based on the 1796  'life-cast' made three years before the great man's death.

  • Official photographs represent the more recent Presidents. Many corporate chiefs make the same choice. Technology is thought to give a more accurate portrayal of the person. We're accustomed to the idea that 'the camera does not lie.'  The science of optics demonstrates this to be an illusion.

So, why does someone want a painted portrait instead of a photo? I think we can find the answer by considering 3 factors.


1. We tend to forget that all Art is a 'lie.'

  • All life, including human, is part of Nature and therefore is 'natural.' Anything made by humans – and some other primates – is 'artificial.' Tools and weapons are artefacts, and therefore un-natural. So too, is Art.

2. We believe the camera does 'lie.'

  • People often remark that photographs 'don't do justice' to them. They're right. In part, this is because what we're used to seeing is only the mirror-image of ourselves.
  • As well,  the camera can only record one aspect of the subject, as s/he appears at one angle, in one instant of time. So a photo can produce distortions when it catches a person blinking, yawning or scowling.

3. We expect good Art will be 'true to life.'

  • By definition, a portrait must be a 'true likeness' of the subject. Yet, a portrait doesn't rely on just a photographic copy of the person's features.
  • The human eye sees the in same way as a camera lens and is subject to the same limitations. The human brain, however, can edit out the errors.
  • This is why an artist's drawings from life result in a more 'truthful' portrait painting.While sketching, the artist picks up clues to the character of the sitter. Such clues influence the artist's final choice of pose, angle of lighting to define certain features, background and any images related to the sitter's profession or other interests.

Allied with the intuition of an attentive artist, practised in seeking the 'true line' of a subject, the brain's computing power produces Art beyond the scope of technology.©Dorothy Gauvin

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