The Icon

“O Washington! How do I love thy name! How have I often adored and blessed thy God, for creating and forming thee the great ornament of human kind!...”                                          

                                                     -Ezra Stiles (1727-1795), President of Yale University, 1783

George Washington (1732-1799)

George Washington, 1899.

During his lifetime and after his death, Washington’s likeness became a symbol for the United States and its accomplishments. George Washington; American general, President of the Constitutional Convention, and the unanimously elected first President of the United States, served as a hero to a newly formed America still constructing its national identity. Many artists and printmakers embellished well-known portraits of Washington with laurel wreaths, liberty caps, and allegorical figures of fortune. The glorification of political figures in art, sometimes called “the iconography of heroism” was common in Europe in the 1700s.

Immediately following the American Revolution, enterprising French, English, and Scottish manufacturers produced printed textiles bearing themes celebrating General Washington and American independence for an enthusiastic American market. These portrayals of Washington, and those depicting him as a Roman citizen or godlike figure, disseminated a mythos of Washington that perpetuated his status as a secular American icon.  These depictions of Washington also linked him to past legendary statesmen, such as Roman leader Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519– 430 BC). Visual connections between this classical work and the new nation helped build an American identity with new traditions and folklore.