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Portrait of George Washington

The furniture, decorated with national symbols like the eagle, probably never really existed.

A ceremonial sword is a reminder of the president's role as commander-in-chief.

Books, a quill pen in an ink well, and an open document symbolize the laws of the nation.

key idea
What makes this portrait symbolic?

At first glance, this portrait seems to be a simple record of George Washington's appearance. But many details are more important for the ideas they symbolize than as a record of history. Indeed, some things in the picture never existed. The furniture, decorated with national symbols like the eagle, was probably invented by the artist.

The black velvet suit Washington wears is also symbolic. As the first president of a modern democracy, Washington had to decide how such a leader should dress. Would it be luxurious robes and crowns, like European kings and queens? Or the military uniform he wore as commander-in-chief? Washington chose a black suit to show that he was a different kind of leader–an ordinary citizen elected by the people.

The sword at Washington's waist reminds us that he was a military leader. But the quill pen standing in the silver inkwell on the table is most powerful here. The pen, the books on the floor, and the paper on the table symbolize the laws of the new nation. The laws, the painting tells us, will last longer than the rule of one man in this new country.

Even the weather in the distant sky is symbolic. A faint rainbow appears beside lingering dark clouds, the calm after a storm. For citizens of the young United States, George Washington's presidency gave hope for a peaceful future after the turmoil of creating a nation.

The weather is no accident--a faint rainbow suggests hope for the future.
September 2003