- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

There are as many stories about George Washington as there are portraits, but his most famous likeness has a story all its own.

Wednesday’s preview reception for the new Gilbert Stuart exhibit at the National Gallery of Art was something of a coming-home party for the so-called Lansdowne Portrait, a commanding full-length picture of the first president commissioned in 1796 by the first Marquess of Lansdowne. A few years back, it was rescued from being auctioned off by its then-owner, Lord Dalmeny, son of the 7th Earl of Rosebery, and presented to the National Portrait Gallery as a gift to the nation by the Donald H. Reynolds Foundation. It is on show in the capital for the first time (alongside 13 other Washington portraits by Stuart) after traveling around the country for the past two years.

Declaring humbly that “I’m not really a student of art,” foundation head Fred W. Smith of Las Vegas said he had been concerned about the possibility of a national treasure falling into “foreign” hands where it might become “an embarrassment to [the United States].”

Patriotism takes many forms, and, in this case, $20 million went for the painting, $6 million for the tour and $4 million to build a special gallery for it in the Portrait Gallery, its new home when the institution opens in July of next year after a total renovation.

Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, was intent on casting the “founding state portraitist” in a fresh light as he greeted guests near the entrance with National Gallery Director Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III. “It’s easy to forget what a great artist Stuart was,” Mr. Pachter said. “He had a wonderful sense of history” and, unlike some of his contemporaries, “was very good with women.”

“Stuart was interested in faces and in the composition of his works: his subjects’ gestures and looks,” added exhibition co-curator Ellen G. Miles, noting also that the distinguished painter of memorable images of the first six U.S. presidents and three early first ladies “loved to party,” ran out on bills and often left portraits behind for others to finish.

Her recent studies, however, suggest that the father of 12 “probably wasn’t deceitful, just unorganized and a bad businessman.”

Prominent lenders from both sides of the Atlantic toured the exhibit of 92 Stuart works while being serenaded by a costumed couple, David and Ginger Hildebrand of Annapolis, wh played harpsichord and violin music that Washington and Stuart might have recognized.

Lady Caroline Percy, Countess of Cabarrus, came from England to admire a familiar work in an unfamiliar setting: Stuart’s 1787 portrait of “The Children of the Second Duke of Northumberland,” which normally hangs in the dining room at AlnwickCastle, her family’s ancestral home.

“I’ve got the same colored hair as the children in the picture. It goes down through all the generations,” Lady Caroline, the sister of the 12th duke, marveled after posing for pictures in front of the enormous canvas with her friends Count and Countess Aleramo Lanza.

Peter Jay, a sixth-gneration direct descendant of John Jay, the nation’s first chief justice, came to see Stuart’s 1794 portrait of his famous forebear clad in Harvard academic robes. “It’s much too big for our farmhouse in Maryland,” Mr. Jay said with a wry grin after mentioning that the painting, which has been on loan to the gallery since the 1950s, would have been inherited by his father’s first cousin, the late literary grande dame Susan Mary Alsop, “if she had been a man.”

It turned out that the Jays had a tale to match the Percys in the hereditary coincidences department: Mr. Jay’s son, William M. Jay, a recent Harvard Law grad, just happens to be clerking this year for Justice Antonin Scalia.

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