How we see George

“America’s First Hero, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen: George Washington,” is an exhibit abou

Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee summed up George Washington’s life and legacy perfectly more than 200 years ago, and his words still ring true today to most Americans: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Lee, a fellow Virginian, was eulogizing the nation’s first commander in chief at his funeral on Dec. 26, 1799, and since then Washington’s stature has remained pretty much intact. His image, at times synonymous with America, continues to be used to symbolize what is best about this country.

“Even today, George Washington becomes the embodiment of the United States,” said Doug McCoombs, curator of history at the Albany Institute of History & Art. “His image is used to represent America, and he’s probably been depicted as much as any individual ever, even Abraham Lincoln. You take a dollar out of your wallet, you’re confronted with George Washington. Look at the latest issue of Time. There’s George Washington on the cover.”

The cover of the Aug. 15, 2011 issue of the news magazine, showing a roughed-up and black-eyed Washington, is just the sort of thing McCoombs was looking for when he began putting together “America’s First Hero, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen: George Washington,” an exhibit about Washington and the way he’s been memorialized in the 212 years since his death. The show is up and running in the Institute’s Square, Round and Jabbur Galleries, and will be on display through May 20.

‘America’s First Hero, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen: George Washington’

WHERE: Albany Institute of History & Art, 125 Washington Ave., Albany

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

HOW MUCH: $10 adults, $8 seniors and students, $6 children 6-12; children under 6, free

MORE INFO: 463-4478,

Our perceptions

“This isn’t so much an exhibit about George Washington in that you’re not going to see a lot of personal artifacts and items like that,” said McCoombs. “What this exhibit is about is how the American people have commemorated and memorialized Washington. The exhibit actually begins with the end of his life, and continues up to the present.”

Among the items on display from the AIHA collection are teapots, plates, busts, documents, personal correspondence, lithographs, paintings and a walking stick cut from a tree near Washington’s Mount Vernon grave site.

“We also borrowed a few pieces from private collections to fill in some places and enhance the exhibit,” said McCoombs. “We used anything from our material culture that has images and references to Washington since his death over 200 years ago. He was our first president, but he was also mourned around the world. When he died, even Napoleon set aside time to recognize Washington. There was tremendous grief.”

Along with that grief, there was tremendous respect from all corners of the world, particularly Europe. According to Warren Roberts, a history professor at the University at Albany, Washington had a number of options open to him after the American Revolution.

Man of character

“Europeans were astonished when he returned to Mount Vernon in 1783, to resume his life as a gentleman farmer,” said Roberts, who will give a lecture on Washington at the AIHA on Oct 9. “Why didn’t he seize power at that time? Only when he was called to become president did Washington assume the weighty responsibility. He did his duty. He was a great man.”

Without Washington’s steadying influence in the 1780s, the history of the United States might have been a short one.

“Of the Founding Fathers, Washington stands above all others,” said Roberts, whose book about Albany during the late 18th century, “A Place in History,” was recently published by SUNY Press.

“It is no surprise that he was elected unanimously, by Congress, to be our first president. He led the Americans to victory in the Revolution, and as our first president he played a decisive role in transforming 13 contentious colonies into a nation.

“For the great historian of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood,” continued Roberts, “Washington’s greatness was a matter of character, of moral weight and gravity. He was the leader Americans looked up to.”

They were Americans of all ages, as one of McCoombs’ favorite items in the display, a sampler, would indicate. Stitched with black thread on a white cotton, the sampler was made by an unidentified young girl in Albany soon after Washington’s death.

“She wrote a poem for this fairly large sampler, and it was the poem she wrote when she heard the bells ringing in Albany, announcing Washington’s death,” said McCoombs.

“It really sets the tone for what the American people were facing. Here was their leader, a man with all the moral virtue anyone could have, their ideal citizen, and he suddenly dies.”

Also in the exhibit are several paintings, including Ezra Ames’ 1826 reproduction of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington, and a 1975 Pop art image of Washington titled, “Young Washington,” done by New York City native Alex Katz.

“We also have a stove that was cast in the figure of George Washington, and we have relics made of wood from Mount Vernon, which nearly became as recognized a symbol of America as Washington himself,” said McCoombs.

Wrestling with slavery

Washington was born in 1732 into a world dominated by slavery. While he never was publicly outspoken about the immorality of the institution, most historians agree that Washington grew to appreciate its great injustice and how it made hypocrites of many of the Founding Fathers.

In his will, he arranged for all of the slaves he owned to be freed upon the death of his wife, and he also left instructions for the care and education of many of his former slaves and their children.

Categories: Life and Arts

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