February 22, 2022, is a fun date in numerical terms for being written 2/22/22. But it marks a real anniversary. The first president of the United States, George Washington, was born 290 years to the day on February 22, 1732. Americans marked the 2022 edition of President’s Day, which owes its date in part to Washington’s birthday, on the 21st. I thought that it would be fitting and proper to publish a bit of Washington content to mark the good general’s birthday. Below, I will discuss in brief a 1794 Masonic portrait of then-President Washington.
(See other posts on George Washington.)
George Washington, like many prominent men of his day, was a Freemason. As President, George Washington sat for a portrait by William Williams that had been commissioned by the Master and officers of Alexandria Lodge No. 22 on August 29, 1793. You will find the portrait below, clipped from Project Gutenberg’s edition of Washington’s Masonic Correspondence.
In this image, Washington is “wearing Masonic jewel, sash, and apron” (source).
The book, which was published in 1917, described the portrait as follows:
ORIGINAL PASTEL PORTRAIT FROM LIFE BY WILLIAM WILLIAMS, PHILADELPHIA, SEPTEMBER 1794, PAINTED AT THE REQUEST OF ALEXANDRIA LODGE, No. 39, A. Y. M., WARRANTED BY THE GRAND LODGE OF PENNSYLVANIA, FEBRUARY 3, 1783, NOW THE ALEXANDRIA-WASHINGTON LODGE, No. 22, A. F. & A. M. OF VIRGINIA. REPRODUCTION FROM THE UNIQUE COPY IN THE MUSEUM OF THE R. W. GRAND LODGE, F. & A. M. OF PENNSYLVANIA.
It is clear from the description that then-President Washington sat for the portrait and that the portrait was painted by William Williams. However, I was a bit unsure about accepting the dates presented in the description.
According to the contemporary website of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial, the dates were a bit different than what was presented in the 1917 book on Washington’s Masonic letters.
1793 — August 29: Letter from the Master and officers of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, Alexandria, Virginia, to Pres. Washington requesting he sit for portrait artist William Williams. No reply from Washington is known but he did sit for Williams and the portrait was completed in September 1793.
While I have no independent basis to determine the exact dates of events, I feel safe in assuming that the best account is provided by the custodians of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial.
The dignified Masonic Portrait of George Washington was painted a couple of years before Washington sat for Gilbert Stuart on multiple occasions. Despite the fact that the Masonic portrait came sooner, Washington looks – to my eyes at least – a bit older in it than he does in the iconic Stuart paintings. Here, in Masonic regalia, Washington sat as a member of the Lodge rather than as the hero of the Revolution and the incumbent President of the United States. I will venture that the Masonic painting of Washington offers us a better idea of what the first President looked like during his two terms in office
The Masonic Portrait of George Washington is displayed in the Replica Lodge Room of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia.