Gilbert Stuart's Germantown

with an outbreak of a yellow fever gripping philadelphia in the summer of 1793, george washington moved essential government operations out of the city and upcountry some six miles to germantown, where the americans suffered defeat in an important battle in 1777.  the renowned painter gilbert stuart had also recently moved to germantown after several years' self-exile in ireland (where he had fled his debtors), and set up a studio in a rough outbuilding behind the house he rented at 5140 germantown avenue, seen here in a 1905 photograph, just a few blocks from washington's germantown residence--

stuart and washington befriended one another, and stuart undertook a series of portraits of the president, painting from direct observation without the use of sketches (an unusual method at the time).  each portrait required that washington sit captive for many hours, and required that stuart be a keen and erudite observer on many levels, as much a master conversationalist as he was a master painter, capable of relaxing and drawing out washington, scrutinizing him without making him feel scrutinized, peering adroitly into his character without making him feel probed, grasping and synthesizing the reaches of inner and outer experience that circulated within his subject.  it is unclear why washington agreed to sit for portrait after portrait as opposed to just one or two, but the result (to my eye--admittedly a photographer's eye drawn to the nuances of the serial format) is a kind of performative rapport, yielding a composite image of washington as a man whose moral authority shades into humility, and whose stateliness shelters psychological complexity.  stuart's pictures were quickly regarded as iconic, and launched stuart's career as the foremost portraitist of the early american political establishment--

stuart's work in germantown also included the "lansdowne portrait," copies of which appear in most u.s. statehouses (to wit, generating the business of copying, which provided a secure income to stuart and his daughters)--

and the famous incomplete portrait known as "the athenaeum," today recognized the world over as the image on the american one dollar bill--

yesterday i found myself walking by the site of the outbuilding where washington sat for stuart for untold hours.  the site is now a fenced-off asphalt lot that sits awkwardly behind germantown avenue--

i contemplated this place for awhile, and gradually it struck me how oddly resonant it is with the unfinished area around the famous image of washington:  undesignated and unexplained, not a "ground" of creative experience but the contrary, a place of abiding indefinition that swallows (or nearly swallows) the images that emerge from it.  i made a picture.  i see a site that is a non-site, where there is no trace of the sustained meeting of two men that became an ur-location in the creation of the national self-image, a site that pronounces itself as nothing, but still pronounces--