George Washington is seen here inspecting the wheat harvest at his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, during his retirement years after serving as president. This was one of five large historical paintings by artist Junius Brutus Stearns that were created between 1847 and 1856. The year 1849 was the fiftieth anniversary of Washington's death and there was a renewed interest in Washington as an iconic American hero around that time. Most of the Washington paintings produced by Stearns, including this one, were made into lithographic prints that were widely circulated among the public.
This bucolic farm scene shows enslaved laborers working under the gentle supervision of an overseer in a white coat. Washington's step-grandchildren are seen at left; the barefooted grandson putting flowers into his sister's hair. Images such as this one belied the reality of enslavement and the harsh conditions endured by many enslaved farm hands. It also did not reflect increasingly contentious arguments about slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. A curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the institution that owns the painting, notes:
Stearns’s idealized vision of a harmonious system of cooperative farming belies the growing national furor over the question of slavery. The Compromise of 1850, a tenuous congressional agreement between North and South, was already unraveling.