By the time of his death in 1799, George Washington had become one of America’s first national heroes. This drawing is an example of one way the American public coped with the first President’s death: through mourning pictures.
Simply done in black and white, the drawing depicts Washington’s home at Mount Vernon with sailboats on the Potomac in the background. I was drawn to this idyllic image because it contrasts a peaceful American landscape with a prominent symbol of Washington’s death, his tomb, located in the foreground. I was also intrigued that this drawing was created twenty years after Washington died, which highlights his lingering presence in the minds of early Americans. An even greater indication of Washington’s lasting importance is that the drawing’s primary use of chalk and pen suggests that it is unlikely the work of a professional artist—even amateurs felt it was important to create works that mourned the President’s passing. Although Washington was no longer physically present, this drawing underscores his mythology and how he represented early American ideals.
With Washington’s passing, the public grappled with the question of how to best mourn the man who had transformed from a prominent private citizen to a national symbol. Mourning pictures were a solution drawn from the English decorative arts tradition. Generally small-scale, these images often featured neoclassical motifs and emphasized themes from nature. These commemorative images appeared throughout the fledgling nation as either prints for public consumption or as amateur works for an individual’s personal use. They were incredibly popular as the young country sought to create its own national iconography in the early years of its governance. The Tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon reflects a trend in American art that sought to balance the commemoration and commercialization of one of the United States’s first iconic heroes.