Wednesday, January 5, 2011

George Washington, Jane Stuart, and California history

Portrait of George Washington, by Jane Stuart • photo © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls

Who can predict the ways in which art, politics, and history intersect? Here is the story of one painting and its place in California history....

Painter Gilbert Stuart is most famously known for his portrait of George Washington – in particular, the one Dolly Madison saved during the War of 1812, when the capitol was under attack, and the British burned the White House and Capitol building.

Gilbert Stuart's original portrait of George Washington, in the White House Collection

At the time, painters, sometimes with the help of their assistants, often made copies of their most celebrated paintings. It was a good living - Stuart painted one hundred thirty copies of his most popular portrait of Washington, and twelve versions of the White House portrait. California's life-sized painting of George Washington was painted by Jane Stuart, Gilbert's daughter.

Originally the painting hung in the courthouse in Sacramento, where it was saved from fire by then–Governor John Bigler (governor from 1852 — 1856). Saving the painting was no small feat. Since it was over 7 1/2 feet high and 5 feet wide, with an even larger, heavy wooden frame, he had to talk not one or two, but several men, into entering the burning building — enough men to carry it back out.

In gratitude for his heroism (and, evidently, persuasive ability), the legislature named a lake after him.

Portrait of California Governor John Bigler, by William F. Cogswell

Time passed.... The Civil War broke out. As a state, California sided with the north. But by–now–former Governor Bigler was a Confederate sympathizer. Supporters of the Union protested the honor, demanding that the lake's name be changed, and mapmaker William Henry Knight asked the Land Office in Washington to change the name on official maps. Controversy followed - even Mark Twain complained about the new name, and the state legislature reaffirmed the name of Lake Bigler in 1870.

But the new name persisted, and finally in 1945 the California State Legislature officially renamed the lake – which is why today we call the largest alpine lake in North America Lake Tahoe (not Lake Bigler).

Map source: Wikipedia

And Jane Stuart's portrait of George Washington — the oldest painting in the Capitol collection — overlooks the Senate Chamber to this day.

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