Primary Source: King George III's Coronation Portrait

A full-length painting of King George III of Britain. He is a white man who stands at the center of the painting in a relaxed pose, with his weight on one leg, and one hand on his hip as he rests his other hand on a table behind him. He is clothed in ornate finery. His breeches and jacket are made with gold cloth and he wears a blue velvet cape lined with ermine, a white fur with black spots. Silk stockings appear beneath his golden breeches. A blue velvet waistbelt supports a sword belt from which descends a robe sword. His cape drapes to the floor and over the table next to him, where a crown also sits. He gazes toward the right with a neutral expression. His cheeks are rosy and he wears a gray wig which curls upward at his ear. Behind him is a red curtain, and behind that is a large column.

Primary Source

Image Citation

“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

Image/Author Background

King George III was many things. The king who lost America in the American Revolution. The “Mad King”. The… enlightened king? 

Three-quarter length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. She is ornately adorned in a dress made of gold fabric with a floral pattern. Her cape is trimmed in white fur dotted with small black spots. She stands tall and faces the viewer straight on. She has pale skin and reddish hair. She wears a bejeweled crown with a cross on her head. In one hand, she holds a black jeweled orb and cross. In the other, she holds a bejeweled scepter.

“Queen Elizabeth I,” by an Unknown Artist, oil on panel, circa 1600. NPG 5175. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Shared under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) Creative Commons License. This work has not been modified.

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.”

Image Analysis

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.

Classroom Inquiry
Full-length portrait of George Washington.. He stands slightly to the right, with his left hand extended outward. His other hand is down at his side, holding a sword pointed downward. He wears plain, all black clothing except for lace at his wrists and neck. He wears a gray wig. Behind him is a red upholstered chair with a stars and stripes symbol at the apex. On his left sits a table, covered in a red cloth. On top of the cloth are papers, books and a feather in an inkwell. Books sit underneath the table, leaning on one of its legs.

“George Washington,” by Gilbert Stuart, 1796. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. NPG.2001.13.

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

Additional Reading