We’ve walked past this artwork at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum for years without giving it much thought (believing it was 1990s computer-generated dot art). Boy, were we wrong…
This is an engraving from 1865 where a calligrapher cleverly shaded their penmanship to create a facsimile of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington using the words of the U.S. Constitution. Here is a description of one in the collection at Mt. Vernon:
“During the 19th century, America’s founding documents – the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence – inspired numerous artists and publishers to produce decorative versions, suitable for framing and display. In this calligraphy portrait, the artist has cleverly shaded the words of the Constitution and amendments, so that George Washington’s face emerges from the text.
Washington’s likeness is based on Gilbert Stuart’s popular ‘Athenaeum’ portrait, originally painted in 1796 and widely copied in paintings, prints, textiles, china, and the dollar bill. Washington’s name also appears, as a signer, at the center edge of his coat collar, about half-way down the white cravat.
The text ends with the 13th amendment’s prohibition of slavery, suggesting a creation date shortly after 1865, but before the passage of the 14th amendment in mid-1866 or its ratification in 1868. Notably, Washington’s portrait did not make its first debut on the dollar bill until 1869.
The artist, William Henry Pratt (1822-1893), was a professor of penmanship in Davenport, Iowa, and the first curator of that city’s Academy of Natural Sciences. He collaborated with the Davenport lithography firm of August Hageboeck on at least three other calligraphy portraits: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Washington and the Declaration of Independence, and Ulysses Grant and the Republican Party platform of 1868.”
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