Discover how symbols found in a presidential portrait provide insight into the historical and cultural background of the United States.
Students will understand how American artist Gilbert Stuart used symbols in the "Lansdowne Portrait" of US President George Washington to tell about the president's life, personality, and achievements. Students will visit a website and watch a video to discover the symbolism in the portrait. Students will select a portrait detail and write their thoughts about its symbolism. Students will create a written explanation about why they think the artist included a particular symbol in the portrait.
Symbols Spotter Badge: Complete 3 out of 3 Quests to earn the Symbols Spotter Badge: Founding Father, The Seal, and Banner.
Founding Father Quest: Complete the Founding Father Quest to work towards earning the Symbols Spotter badge. You will complete 2 out of 2 assignments to complete the Founding Father Quest.
You understand the ways that an artist uses symbols in a portrait to tell about the subject’s life, personality, achievements, and more. Consult the Quest Rubric to find out how your quest submission will be evaluated by the staff at Smithsonian Quests.
curator: one who has the care and superintendence of something; especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit
portrait: a painting, drawing, or photograph of a person
symbol: something that stands for or suggests something else
This painting of George Washington, the first president of the United States, is known as the Lansdowne Portrait because it was a gift to the Marquis of Lansdowne, an English supporter of American independence, from Senator and Mrs. William Bingham of Pennsylvania. It was completed in 1796.
By watching this video, you can get an in-depth view of the Lansdowne Portrait and hear a National Portrait Gallery curator’s thoughts about the symbolism in the portrait.
While you can tell a lot about George Washington from his stance, facial expression, and clothing, there are several objects in the Lansdowne painting that tell a story. Visit this website interactive to identify the symbols in the painting and determine what they mean.
While you can tell a lot about George Washington from his stance, facial expression, and clothing, there are several objects in the painting that tell a story as well. Think about the meanings of the objects in the Lansdowne Portrait. Write short answers to describe the meaning of each object.
Look at the Lansdowne Portrait again--what catches your eye as a symbolic object?
Re-watch the video and listen for descriptions from the curator. Jot down notes to help you recall the information.
Re-visit the Lansdowne website. Jot down notes to help recall the information.
Look at the Lansdowne Portrait again. Can you find an inkwell, curtains, rainbow, chair, sword, books, and fancy shoe buckle?
Select one symbol from the painting. Why do you think artist Gilbert Stuart included that symbol in his portrait of George Washington? What does the symbol add to the portrait? Explanation Select one symbol from the Lansdowne Portrait. Write a paragraph explaining why you think artist Gilbert Stuart included that particular symbol Explain what you think that symbol adds to the portrait.
Take a look for symbols in another American painting, Thomas Hart Benton’s Achelous and Hercules. This twentieth-century mural is a retelling of an ancient myth. The artist moved the setting from ancient Greece to the American Midwest, and gave new meanings to the story’s symbolism.