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Gorgeous George

by Ann Morrow on February 16, 2012

Nathaniel Courier does Gilbert Stuart: George Washington at AIHA

He was, in his day, bigger than Madonna or Gaga, bigger than the Beatles or Beiber fever, bigger than all the crowned heads of Europe put together (c’mon, how many people could pick King Louis XVI out of a line-up?) He was, he is, the one and only . . . Valley Forge George!

As far as pop icons go, the first President of the United States makes the biggest box-office star in the world look like a pipsqueak. But never mind about all the President’s Day sales that will use his likeness to sell mattresses and trucks. And forget, for a moment, that most people see his dignified visage every day, on one-dollar bills. Because even before mass consumption became a way of life, President George Washington was an object of veneration, inspiration, and commercialism. Artifacts from GW’s more than 200 years of popular identity can be seen at the Albany Institute of History and Art’s current exhibition, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen: George Washington. The title is taken from Gov. Henry Lee’s eulogy for Washington in 1799 (“To the memory of the Man, First in War, First in Peace. . . .”).

Yet the idolization of Washington began before his greatly mourned death. A war hero from the French and Indian Wars and a general of the Revolutionary War, Washington was a figure larger than life even before being overwhelmingly elected to the presidency. The exhibit illustrates many of the facets of Washington’s iconic status, from a walking stick made from a tree from his Mount Vernon grave site—a commodity that was much in demand as a memento mori—to souvenir items such as badges, flasks, booklets, and cup plates.

“The exhibit is really intended to look at how Americans commemorated him, before and mostly after his death,” says Douglas McCombs, AIHA curator of history and material culture. “It’s not so much about George as a person, but how we as Americans have kept his image alive. He embodies the United States. Even 200 years after his death, his image is understood, that it represents American values, and those values are prominent in consumerism. It’s also about how manufacturing used his image for commercialism,” adds McCombs, “though I think he would’ve frowned on that.”

The dual purposes of marketing Washington’s persona started early, as illustrated by a basalt bust of the president. Made from a clay casting by neoclassical sculptor Houdon, who traveled from France specifically to model from the president (who was regarded by the French as a symbol of liberty), the stone busts were spin-off products from Houdon’s commission for a life-size statue.

Other products designed to cash in on American (and European) admiration for the father of his country include a Wedgewood teapot ornately decorated with Washingtonian scenery, and fine Staffordshire porcelains. There were no hard feelings when it came to commerce, explains McCombs. “The English thought, ‘the Americans have money, let’s sell to them.’ ”

Goods adorned with Washington’s image range from the fine arts, such as an oil painting by Ezra Ames and a sculptured cast-iron “dumb stove” made in Troy, to mass-manufactured reams of cloth printed with GW medallions and kitschy, 1970s poster art. “Everything has a local connection,” says McCombs, with many of the items having been donated to the institute more than a century ago by historical families of the area.

Though there are several variations on Gilbert Stuart’s famous painting of Washington—the most copied and manipulated portrait in America—the exhibit’s most affecting artifact may be a “home shrine” created in Albany during the Victorian era. A needlepoint homage with a chromolithographic picture of the president embellished with pressed ferns and paper cut-outs, the picture handily illustrates the maker’s devout admiration.