Mark Twain is thought to have quipped, “If Washington should rise from the dead and not resemble the Stuart portrait, he would be judged an imposter.” Such is the legacy of the so-called Athenaeum portrait.
On several occasions in 1796 George Washington came to the Philadelphia home of the artist Gilbert Stuart to sit for a life portrait. Those sittings produced what is, arguably, the most famous portrait ever created: the unfinished Athenaeum image of Washington that peers out from the dollar bill.
First Face: The Buck Starts Here considers the circumstances leading to the creation of Stuart’s portrait, and its subsequent life as the defining image of Washington and, ultimately, as an enduring symbol of America. Ironic contrasts between the mercurial Stuart and the highly controlled Washington, as well as contrasts between Washington the man and Washington the myth, drive this half hour documentary.
The film is structured around a historical recreation of the Washington portrait, followed by a series of attempt to “finish” the famously unfinished image. The narrative of the film moves between the portrait and its “biography,” beginning with Stuart’s attempts to “loosen up” General Washington in the studio and concluding with a consideration of the portraits contemporary value as a symbol of the Amercian Nation. A disparate montage of elements, both earnest and amused, raise serious questions about our heritage, while highlighting the ironies of the story. Voice-over commentary from historians and biographers accompany the images, as well as comments from Stuart himself, whose remarks on Washington are well documented.
First Face: The Buck Starts Here invites audiences to view this iconic portrait through the eyes of the artist, through the eyes of early Americans, and, in the end, it asks viewers to take a fresh look at the image through their own eyes.
- Jim WolpawProducer
- Steven E. GentileProducer