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In the Classroom > Picturing America Lessons > George Washington, the American Cincinnatus

Back to George Washington, the American Cincinnatus

Suggested Answers and Background Information

What did Gilbert Stuart do to make Washington look important?

Stuart depicted Washington standing with good posture, as a public speaker would stand, wearing his more formal clothing, and surrounded by fancy things. It is a full-length portrait, which is significant.

Notice the chair, items on and under the table and in Washington’s hand. Each was placed in the painting to signify something about him. See if you can figure out what they represent:

  • Books- the titles of the 2 on the table are the Federalist and Journal of Congress. Both are books Washington needed in his job as president
  • Quill pen & inkwell- he was well-written
  • Sword- he was not only a soldier but a general
  • Chair- has on it the Great Seal of the US, referring to Washington being president

Notice the rainbow in the upper right corner of the painting. What might that signify?

Washington saw the country through tough times that are now getting better.

Notice the colors Stuart chose to use. Would you describe these as “warm” or “cool”? How does his choice of colors help set the mood of the painting?

Stuart used warm colors. They help set the mood as warm, positive, and welcoming.

What traits and/or accomplishments of Washington’s did Stuart think were important to represent via this painting?

His role as a leader by being a general and hero during the Amer. Rev. War, and serving as the 1st president. Stuart believed in “physiognomy”- the art of studying physical features for signs of character and temperament. In his eyes, Washington was a man of controlled passions and Stuart tried to convey that via this portrait.

Misc. Notes on the Items Being Examined

Washington leaning on cannon- he appears easy, relaxed confident. It is the end of the war (1779).

“Life of George Washington- The Farmer”- Washington really enjoyed being a gentleman farmer, he wanted to distinguish himself, he was not a scholar but was well-read and well-enough educated, he didn’t go to college

“Parson Weem’s Fable”- Parson Weems wrote the cherry tree story & might be the man watching George in the picture; Washington didn’t like being depicted as a deity- he wanted to appear human

Tavern sign- Washington is a new symbol of the age; King George would have appeared on a tavern sign before the Rev. War.

Why did Washington say that he was resigning?

He felt he had accomplished his task, “finished the work assigned me”, and he felt confident that the country would now remain independent without his leadership.

What did he mean when he said that he accepted his appointment (to be the nation’s first president) with “diffidence”? How was he able to overcome that feeling?

He wasn’t sure at first that he would be able to accomplish what was being asked of him. He didn’t trust his own capabilities. He overcame this when he thought about how much he believed in this cause, how much support he had from the country, and he found support in his religion as well.

Why would Washington be the “greatest man in the world”? What is the significance of Washington resigning then?

He didn’t run for a 3rd term because he felt it was someone else’s turn, he didn’t want power, & most importantly, he knew when to give it up.

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