Primary Source: King George III's Coronation Portrait
“State Portrait of George III in Coronation Robes,” by Allan Ramsay, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. JYF2009.2.
Standards and Skills
Virginia Standards of Learning: VUS.4c, US1.6c, VS.5b
Meets National Standards of Learning for Social Studies
Summary and Significance
This coronation portrait announces King George III’s succession to the supreme power in Britain. This painting captures a moment of optimism within the British empire. King George III set out to rule as an enlightened king. American colonists were hopeful that his reign would start a new era of wealth and growth. These hopes proved false. Eventually, the American colonists rebelled against King George III in the American Revolution.
Historical Background and Image Analysis
King George III was many things. The king who lost America in the American Revolution. The “Mad King”. The… enlightened king?
When King George III took the throne in 1760, he saw himself as an enlightened king who valued virtue and wanted to avoid party politics and factions. British subjects, including American colonists, cheered his coronation. Copies of this portrait, painted by artist Allan Ramsay, were sent around the empire to broadcast his authority, much like official presidential pictures are sent around the country today.
Early in King George III’s reign, Americans had every reason to praise their new king. By 1763, they had finished fighting the French and Indian war. The victory gave Great Britain access to the lands west of the Appalachian mountains. But the relationship between the Americans and King George III soured with the passage of the Proclamation of 1763. The Proclamation kept Americans from settling west of the Appalachian mountains in an attempt to avoid conflict with American Indian groups.
Further Acts of Parliament led to conflict between Americans and their British government through the 1760s and early 1770s. Even so, many Americans remained loyal to the King. Some believed Parliament was the problem, not the King. In an attempt to reach the king directly, Colonists sent King George III the Olive Branch Petition in 1775. When King George III refused to read the petition this was the last straw. The Declaration of Independence followed soon after.
King George III eventually lost the fight to keep the American colonies part of the British empire. Soon after, his mental health began to decline, leading to his nickname “The Mad King.”
In the portrait, King George III is shown as a monarch of the Enlightenment. He was, first, and foremost, a monarch. In the image, he is lavishly and ornately adorned. His crown sits next to him. However, the crown is not on his head, but pushed into the background. The portrait also lacks other symbols of royalty, like a scepter or cross. These symbols are front and center in a portrait showing Queen Elizabeth I at her own 1559 coronation, shown here. Comparing the two portraits, the one of King George III clearly decenters symbols of the power of the monarchy.
King George III’s coronation portrait showed that he would be an enlightened King who would be virtuous and put his country before politics. Compare the portrait of King George III to the painting of George Washington around the time he was sworn in as America’s first president.
1. What elements of the King George III portrait show that he is a wealthy and powerful monarch? The ornate and expensive clothing and the crown show King George III is wealthy and powerful.
2. King George III’s portrait includes symbols of monarchy. What symbols of American democracy does George Washington’s portrait include? The symbols of American democracy include the books and the American flag symbol on the chair. His extended hand also acknowledges that his power comes from the people.
3. Examine King George III’s portrait with students and point out that the portrait showed he was an enlightened king who would value virtue and what was best for the people over politics by: Including a crown without other symbols of monarchy (like a scepter or orb), putting the crown slightly behind him, not on his head, and standing casually.
Ask students: What are other elements he could have included in the painting to show he was an “enlightened king”? Either list them or draw your own portrait.
Related Classroom Resources
- Teaching with Primary Sources Digital Library
- Making a Patriot Inquiry
- What changed for the American colonies when King George III took the throne?
- “George III by Allan Ramsay, 1762,” The American Revolution Institute, https://www.americanrevolutioninstitute.org/asset/george-iii-by-allan-ramsay-ca-1761-62/.
- George III (1738-1820), Colonial Williamsburg, http://www.ouramericanrevolution.org/index.cfm/people/view/pp0022.
- Jeremy Black, The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
- Jeremy Black, George III: America’s Last King (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
- “Up Close with George Washington,” Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.