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In the Classroom > Picturing America Lessons

George Washington, the American Cincinnatus

Lesson created by: Deerfield Teachers' Center Staff

Grade Level: High School


3-B Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (The Lansdowne Portrait), 1796

Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington

Gilbert Stuart(1755–1828), George Washington (the Lansdowne portrait), 1796. Oil on canvas, 97 1/2 x 62 1/2 in. (247.6 x 158.7 cm.). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W.Reynolds Foundation. © 2008 Smithsonian Institution,Courtesy, National Portrait Gallery.

Other Resources Needed for this Lesson


Students will understand that:

  • Gilbert Stuart created the visual image of George Washington that most of us carry in our minds.
  • for many years we have considered Washington to be a hero and he was commemorated as such in a number of different ways.
  • although he was considered a hero he was also humble and knew when to step down from office.

Focusing Statement

Students will examine Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of George Washington and a variety of other images to discover which of his character traits they illustrate. Students will also read Washington's resignation address and compare him to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.

When a likeness of George Washington comes to mind, quite often it is his image as it appears on a $1 bill and a quarter or for some of us of a certain age, the portrait that hung next to Abraham Lincoln's in so many schoolrooms across the nation. All were created by Gilbert Stuart and it is said that many of us only envision George Washington through Stuart's eyes.

Gilbert Stuart first became well-known as a portrait artist during the 18 years he spent in Europe studying art. Soon after he returned to America in 1793, he decided to paint a portrait of Washington because he realized creating an image of such a popular national leader could lead to fame and fortune for the artist. Washington sat for Stuart at least four times and in addition Stuart held the copyright for all engravings made from his paintings- and there were many.

Examining Expressive Content

  • Beyond George, what do you see?
  • What did Gilbert Stuart do to make Washington look important?
  • 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.
    • Quill pen & inkwell
    • Sword
    • Chair
  • Notice the rainbow in the upper right corner of the painting. What might that signify?
  • 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?
  • What traits and/or accomplishments of Washington's did Stuart think were important to represent via this painting?
  • When you think of what George Washington looked like, where does your image come from? Gilbert Stuart created the visual image of George Washington that most of us carry in our minds.

Suggested answers to these questions

Teaching Plan

  1. Hand out images and items for students to examine and ask them to answer the following questions. You might assign students to work in pairs with some or all of the items.
    • What traits of George's does this image represent?
    • Which of his qualities does it illustrate?
    Use these:
  2. On Cincinnatus & resignation- Ask a student to read aloud the "Excerpts from George Washington's Resignation Address to the Continental Congress". Ask:
    • Why did Washington say that he was resigning?
    • 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?
    Read aloud the following: In a conversation between King George III of England and the American-born painter Benjamin West during the Revolutionary War, the king asked him what he thought George Washington would do if America won the war. West replied that he thought Washington would retire to his farm. According to West, King George then said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."
    • Why would Washington be the "greatest man in the world"?
    • What is the significance of Washington resigning then?
    For a clue as to why this would be so, you need to know about Cincinnatus. Washington liked to be compared to this early Roman. Read aloud "The Story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus". Then ask again the questions above.

Suggested answers to these questions

Putting It All Together

When you look again at Gilbert Stuart's painting of Washington, what do you notice now that you didn't notice before? What do you understand now?


Massachusetts Social Science and Curriculum Framework

Gr. 8-12, Concepts and Skills, #10
Distinguish historical fact from opinion.

Gr. 8-12 Learning Standards, USI.22
Summarize the major policies and political developments that took place during the presidencies of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Massachusetts Framework for English Language Arts and Literacy

Gr. 9-10, Learning Standards
Analyze a group of historic speeches for the features that made them memorable and prepare a speech using some of these features.

Reading standards for Informational Texts 6-12
9. Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington's Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"), including how they address related themes and concepts.

Common Core Standards

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies

Grade 9-10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies
Grade 11-12

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

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