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Completed in 1797, Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington was the first piece of artwork purchased for display in the White House.

On August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812, British troops invaded Washington, D.C. First Lady Dolley Madison ordered the Washington painting to be saved, and it was taken down off the wall and sent out of harm’s way by a group of individuals--Jean Pierre Sioussat, the White House steward; Paul Jennings, an enslaved worker; Thomas McGrath, the White House gardener; and two men from New York, Jacob Barker and Robert G.L. De Peyster. Later that night, British troops set fire to the White House and destroyed many of the first family’s possessions. They could not, however, claim the capture or destruction of George Washington’s famous portrait. The portrait currently hangs in the East Room of the White House, paired with a full-length portrait of Martha Washington.

This full-length portrait of George Washington was painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1797, the final year of his presidency. While other artists had depicted Washington as a military leader, Stuart became the first portraitist to paint an authoritative image of Washington as the country's first president. Washington holds a sword in his left hand, alluding to his past military service, but appears in civilian clothes, emphasizing the fact that he had resigned his commission as a military leader. A book entitled Constitution and Laws of the United States leans against the table leg. The portrait was installed in the White House in November 1800. During the War of 1812, First Lady Dolley Madison famously saved the portrait from near-certain demise. Before vacating the premises on August 24, 1814, Mrs. Madison ordered that official papers and the Washington portrait should be saved from British hands. The painting returned to the White House after it was rebuilt in 1817. Washington served as the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The first president was in office from April 30, 1789 until March 4, 1797.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

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