Lichtenstein’s George Washington (1962)

Art never ceases to amaze me. Time and again I suddenly see something where I least expect it. Who would have thought that the traditions identified here, used by artists as far back as the early Middle Ages, would be present in precisely the same way in the late twentieth-century comic-book art of Roy Lichtenstein?
 

It was his portrait of George Washington that first caught my attention. It is an odd subject for Lichtenstein, the only historical figure among his drawings. Besides it looks nothing like the George in Gilbert Stuart's portrait on which it is based. Remembering how many images of America‚Äôs first president resemble the artist as much as the man, I had no choice but to think : is this the president or Roy? 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Lichtenstein, George Washington (1962) Frottage and graphite pencil on paper. Private Collection

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The president's face, as so often in portraits of iconic figures, has been fused with the artist's.1 Lichtenstein presents himself as an American icon. "I have always had this interest in purely American subject matter", he once said. And later: "I had a feeling about official painting...I still do. It's their reliance on great subjects for their force that interests me.."2 It was also the kind of art that Abstract Expressionists, who were then the rage, abhorred.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Lichtenstein's George Washington
R: Photograph of Roy Litchenstein (c.1970)

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Lichtenstein's method, as I will show in future entries, is similar to the work of other artists discussed here. Regardless of what it appears to be, the scene is always a view inside his own mind where the subject is art and its creation. Here the shading on Washington's forehead is made to resemble a brushstroke, an ironic reference because in Lichtenstein's typical art, as here, one never sees a mark from his hand.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Lichtenstein's George Washington

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Down below, above Washington's collar, another type of shading also resembles a row of paintbrushes. This is intentional, I think, because there is no other reason why a strip of white should separate the "hairs" of the brushes from their "sticks". And, why do the lines of the "sticks" appear relatively straight when, around his neck, they should curve?

There is another reason why this portrait of Washington is all about art. It is based on Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Washington which, as I will show next week, is all about art. Roy, it seems, "read" artworks the same way we do here.

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Lichtenstein's George Washington

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Notes:

1. See, for instance, the portraits of Britain's monarchs in Simon Abrahams, Who's Who in Portraits 3 (online, 2008)

2. Roy Lichtenstein: The Black-and-White Drawings, 1961-1968 (New York: The Morgan Library and Museum) 2011, p. 126

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