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Object of the Week: Richards Portrait of George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart

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Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), considered one of America’s most accomplished portraitists, painted over one thousand portraits over the course of his career. He is best known, however, for his many paintings of the first President of the United States, George Washington. Stuart first painted the president in 1795, and at the urging of Martha Washington, her husband again sat for a portrait a year later, in 1796. Rather than completing this work, which came to be known as the Athenaeum Portrait and today is jointly owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Portrait Gallery, Stuart deliberately left the painting unfinished. He kept the painting in his possession and used it as a model from which to make replica portraits of Washington for the rest of his career. Richards Portrait of George Washington is one such replica, named for the Boston family who commissioned the painting around 1810, eleven years after Washington’s death.

The Everson purchased Richards Portrait of George Washington in 1976 after a successful community-wide fundraising campaign. Over the course of ten months, from May 1975 to February of 1976, the Museum worked to raise the $115,000 necessary to purchase the painting through a series of unique fundraising events and opportunities designed to engage the entire Central New York community. The Buy George campaign began in May when the painting first went on view at the Everson with a simple donation box placed beside the canvas. Visitors were encouraged to donate “a George for George,” and within a month, nearly $13,000 had been raised.

Fundraising efforts quickly expanded. The Everson sold George themed t-shirts and buttons and hosted silver dollar toss competitions on the Community Plaza (a nod to the legend about George Washington skipping a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River as a young boy), cherry pie eating contests, fashion shows, and special lectures. Local organizations planned craft fairs, turkey raffles, and bake sales, all of which generated proceeds that bolstered the Buy George fund. Volunteers placed donation boxes and posters advertising the campaign all over Central New York, and the Museum tracked the campaign’s progress on a six-foot replica of the Washington Monument.

The Everson originally planned to finish the fundraiser by July 4, 1976, in celebration of America’s bicentennial. By January, however, the campaign had nearly reached its goal, and the Museum held a celebratory gala on February 22 to commemorate both the end of the campaign and Washington’s 244th birthday. Ultimately, the Buy George campaign raised over $145,000, with donations ranging in size from nickels given by elementary school children to a $30,000 matching gift from Crouse-Hinds Co. In the Everson’s July 1976 Bulletin, Director Ron Kuchta proudly wrote, “Rarely has a museum acquired a painting with the public support and enthusiasm and energy that accompanied the purchase of Richards Portrait of George Washington.” Today, the painting is a favorite of Everson visitors and an enduring reminder of what a community is capable of when it works together.

Richards Portrait of George Washington is currently on display in the exhibition Time Capsule (on view through December 30, 2018), alongside memorabilia, photographs, and ephemera from the Buy George campaign.

-Steffi Chappell, Curatorial Assistant

Image captions

  • Gilbert Stuart, Richards Portrait of George Washington, 1805-1815, oil on canvas, 28¾ x 24 inches, Everson Museum of Art; Museum purchase with contributions from the community and friends of Syracuse and Onondaga County as a tribute to the American Bicentennial, 76.35
  • Buy George fundraising campaign poster
  • Photographs of Buy George fundraising campaign money tracker (left) and gala celebrating the end of the campaign and George Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1976 (right)
  • Photograph of Everson staff and volunteers