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Gilbert Stuart

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Gilbert Stuart
American
(North Kingstown, Rhode Island, 1755 - 1828, Boston, Massachusetts)

“For my part, I will not follow any master. I wish to find out what nature is for myself, and see her with my own eyes. This appears to me the true road to excellence.”
-Gilbert Stuart

The dominant artist during the Federal Period in the United States, Gilbert Stuart is considered to be the father of American portraiture. Working during a period between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Stuart fashioned his own creative response to contemporary European and American ideas about portraiture. Stuart was well known and respected by his contemporaries and helped to shift the tradition from mimeticism to individualism and thence realism in portraiture. Like John Singleton Copley before him, not only was Stuart able to capture a sitter’s likeness, but also the essence of their very being. Stuart’s portraits “convey an uplifting sense of human dignity and personal virtue.”(1)

Born in 1755 in Rhode Island, Gilbert Stuart learned to draw from an African slave, Neptune Thurston. Thurston taught the young Stuart how to draw heads by demonstrating on top of a barrel his own ability to capture various facial expressions with chalk. Stuart was precocious as a teenager, often challenging his friend Benjamin Waterhouse to drawing contests. The criterion was absolute realism-—each boy was to draw his favorite subjects. Waterhouse drew trees and ships, while Stuart depicted heads—Stuart was declared the winner. Along with a facility for drawing, as a youth Stuart also developed an early love for music.

In the late 1760s, a well-trained professional artist from Scotland, Cosmo Alexander, arrived in Newport. One of his patrons, Dr. William Hunter, who was familiar with Stuart’s skill, introduced the youth to the artist. Alexander took Stuart under his wing and so began the career of America’s first portraitist.

In the spring of 1771, after having traveled and worked in Philadelphia, Williamsburg, and Norfolk, Alexander and Stuart left for Scotland. Unfortunately, Stuart’s apprenticeship with Alexander was short-lived as the elder artist took ill and died shortly after their arrival in 1772. From this point, historical accounts of Stuart’s career differ. Presumably the artist attended the University of Glasgow, and while there, he may have painted a few portraits, although none are extant. According to art historian Dorinda Evans, Stuart appeared back in his father’s household in the United States as early as the fall of 1773. He was certainly there by 1774, as he was counted as a nineteen-year old male in the June 1st census.(2)

Stuart remained in Newport until the fall of 1775. During this period, he pursued his dual interest in music and art, even performing on keyboard and flute, and composing his own music. Stuart’s earliest surviving portraits date from this period, and scholars believe that he may have been hired as Alexander’s substitute upon Stuart’s return to Newport. Little is known about this period of Stuart’s career and, his portraits while naïve, bore promise.

One of Stuart’s earliest surviving portraits, "Christian Banister and Her Son" (c. 1773, Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island), is a quaint portrait of a mother and child. Mrs. Banister sits on the right side of the painting, with her left hand on her son’s back, who stands next to her holding the family dog. Mrs. Banister is somewhat attenuated, while her son has the appearance of a small man more than that of a child. They are characteristic of Stuart’s early figures, with exceptionally rounded heads, and disproportionate facial features, particularly the eyes.

Stuart’s portrait of "Benjamin Waterhouse" (1775, Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island), as demonstrated by Evans, shows a remarked improvement of the artist’s observational skills. Stuart depicted his friend at a table reading, momentarily paused to look up at the viewer. The figure has lost the characteristic roundness of earlier portraits, and the facial features are proportionate to his face. The most drastic improvement is in the eyes, which “convey the impression of actual sentience.”(3) The painting demonstrates outstanding and painstaking observation of minute detail. Evans argues that it may have even been modeled after John Singleton Copley’s "Paul Revere" (1768, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), with which Stuart was certainly familiar.

As tensions began to rise with the oncoming war, Stuart wholeheartedly embraced the cause of the colonists. His father, who remained a British loyalist, moved the family to Nova Scotia out of harm’s way. However, Stuart was not keen on the idea of the move. Instead, the artist decided to go to London with Waterhouse, who was going to study in Britain to become a doctor. Stuart set sail from Newport on September 8, 1775. Newport harbor had become so dangerous that a British man-of-war confronted his ship and held it near the entrance for almost a week before allowing it to leave. Waterhouse had already left for London, and by the time Stuart arrived, he had gone to Edinburgh to begin his studies.

Upon his arrival, Stuart found it very difficult to pursue his career as a portraitist. He struggled for more than a year, and his work returned to the mimeticism found during his time in Newport. The artist also began to focus on his music career, auditioning as a church organist, and he was torn between pursuing a career in arts and a career in music. Meanwhile, Waterhouse’s studies were going well in Edinburgh. However, while on holiday, Waterhouse visited London only to find Stuart in bad shape.

According to scholars, it was in London that Stuart’s periods of depression and seclusion began. Often times if things were going badly, the artist would retreat to his bed, seldom leaving for days at a time. His mood and temper fluctuated between highs and lows and some scholars believe that he may have suffered from manic depression.(4) Waterhouse recalled, “With Stuart, it was either high tide or low tide. In London, he would sometimes lay in bed for weeks, waiting for the tide to lead him to fortune.”(5)

In December of 1776, Stuart finally broke down and contacted Benjamin West, whose soft spot and kindness for American artists was well known. After hearing of his great difficulty and witnessing his talent as an artist, West hired Stuart at a half guinea a week for painting draperies and finishing West’s portraits. The elder artist also provided Stuart with studio space and gave him painting lessons. It seemed that the tide was finally beginning to turn.

By 1778, Stuart had abandoned minute representation of the sitter and embraced Venetian and Flemish oil painting tradition. Instead of working an image by outline, Stuart worked the image from light and dark, allowing forms to be modeled by light and shadow. It was at this time that he created his "Self-Portrait" (c. 1778, Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island). The painting is a remarkable study with the artist’s face emerging from a background of total darkness. It strongly recalls the Flemish tradition with its “soft, melting transitions in modeling…with a new life-like immediacy.”(6) Stuart also wears a large hat in the portrait, similar to that of West’s own self-portrait of 1776 (Baltimore Museum of Art) and even Rubens’ self-portrait of 1623 (Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II).

During the London years (1775-1795), Stuart’s work made an amazing transition. Presumably, one benchmark of this transition was a conversation around 1781 with the American historical painter, John Trumbull (1756-1843). Stuart had begun Trumbull’s portrait and after having worked on it for about a week, and then discarded it because he couldn’t accurately describe Trumbull’s “sallow face.”(7) In London, Stuart had become convinced that he had to create an aesthetically pleasing picture. No longer would he be concerned with representing a mere likeness of the individual, for he also wanted to convey a sense of spirit and soul.

In 1782, Stuart submitted his first full-length portrait to the exhibition at the Royal Academy. Entitled "The Skater (Portrait of William Grant)" (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C. ), Stuart depicted Grant ice skating with his body slightly tilted forward, his arms crossed as he looks to the right of the painting. The park extends behind him to reveal a cityscape in the background. Other figures dot the park, enjoying the cold weather. The portrait was highly unusual in that it showed the Grant figure skating. Furthermore, while in what is presumably an active scene, Stuart depicts Grant ice-skating in a contemplative state, thus surpassing mere representation of the individual. The painting was a smash at the exhibition, and its success enabled Stuart to leave West’s studio and set up on his own.

In creating his portraits, Stuart developed a system of different levels of completion. One method was to bring the portrait to a relatively finished state and another was left as a more sketchy or generalized representation of the sitter. Stuart often lost interest in a portrait after he finished the head, and after the 1780s, students or assistants completed the majority of his paintings. And, on a number of occasions, Stuart never allowed a portrait to be completed, abandoning the painting, and his patron for that matter.

Stuart received a great deal of acclaim in London after the Royal Academy exhibition and was becoming more and more concerned with how well a portrait showed the sitter’s mind and soul. Reviewers and critics agreed, and were also concerned with what they considered the superior in portraiture-the display of so-called mental qualities. “Benevolence, elevation, and dignity” or the depiction of “the elevation of the mind” were all desirable qualities in portraiture.(8)

As Stuart became more successful, he began to live in high style. He believed that in order to attain the top rank of success, he had to pay court to his patrons. Part of this courtship involved providing suitable surroundings that reflected the artist’s aesthetic sensibility. As a result, Stuart spent lavish amounts of money on clothing, furniture, decorations, and a substantial home in which he could entertain and paint. However, the artist began to acquire large debts due to his lavish lifestyle, and when he received commissions from wealthy Irish patrons, it seemed the perfect time to flee his creditors in London and set up shop in Dublin.

Although Stuart was in high demand in Ireland and making money once again, his creditors were still not pleased. In 1789, Stuart finally admitted financial defeat and was imprisoned in Dublin’s Marshalea Prison, where he continued to be sought out by patrons in his jail cell. Eventually earning enough money for his release, Stuart returned to London and began to set his sights on the new President of the United States, George Washington.

Stuart’s decision to return to the United State and paint Washington had nothing to do with any stirring patriotic sentiment. His decision was strictly monetary. Stuart wanted to “make a fortune” by producing “a plurality of portraits” of Washington. The artist arrived in 1793, and called upon American peace commissioner John Jay to write a letter of introduction to Washington. It would be three years before the President sat for him in 1795.

Stuart’s first painting of Washington, known as the Vaughn Portrait (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.), was completed in 1795 and is a bust length portrait. Stuart reported that he felt overwhelmed by Washington’s presence during the sitting and had great difficulty in trying to capture his character. The artist was concerned with depicting the heroic aspect of Washington’s personality, as the man who led the Americans to defeat the British and establish a new country. The portraits needed to be an amalgam of history painting and portraiture. The object was for the viewer must grasp the full nature of the individual while only confronted with sitter’s head.

Around March of 1796, Stuart obtained a second chance to paint Washington from life. Washington’s wife, Martha, had commissioned Stuart to paint her portrait, and it is likely the second sitting was the result of wanting a companion portrait of her husband. The result was Stuart’s well-known Boston Athenaeum portrait.

Painted in 1796, the image of Washington has become the accepted depiction of the first president. The portrait is unfinished, and Washington looks out past the viewer. The upper right side of the canvas is the only part that is painted (aside from Washington) - the rest of the canvas is still bare. In this painting, Stuart introduced the idea of the sublime into the portrait.(9) As with landscape, the sublime in portraiture is essentially concerned with the expression of power and to be effective, it must produce a reactive feeling of awe in the spectator. There was no man other than George Washington that this could be accomplished with at the end of the eighteenth century. The Athenaeum portrait is the only sublime portrait in that it was recognized as producing the appropriate reaction and it succeeded because “it was super humanly expressive of moral power and moral authority.”(10)

The third style of Washington portrait created by Stuart is known as the Lansdowne Portrait (1796, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C.). Lord Lansdowne, a former secretary of state who had participated in peace negotiations at the end of the Revolutionary War, a friend of the American colonies, and an admirer of Washington, commissioned the painting. In the painting, Stuart dramatized the setting by creating fictitious surroundings with a series of props that alluded to Washington’s legacy and that of other founding fathers.

The President stands straight, with one hand on the sword (with which he had led his country to freedom), the other extended in a gesture of address that can be interpreted variously as a greeting or even possible a bestowal. A group of books, which include "General Orders," "American Revolution," and "Constitution and Law of the United States," rest against the leg of the table next to him. The painting is a propaganda-style portrait with all the elements to match. The Lansdowne portrait, like the Athenaeum portrait, was very well received, and was in high demand.(11)

By the end of August 1799, Stuart made plans to return with his family to London, but he could never save enough money for it. Still spending lavishly, Stuart was constantly plagued by financial difficulty. And, his lack of regular completion of portraits didn’t help matters. The artist continued painting copies of his Washington portraits, and those of American elite. Many of his clients were women and some of his critics concluded that men were his forte. For example, critic John Neal characterized his women as lacking grace and tenderness. They were creatures of flesh and blood, but sometimes too strongly individualized perhaps for female portraiture.(12)

Around 1800, Stuart began painting on panel as he had concluded that the summer heat in the United States would have a destructive effect on canvas support over the course of about twenty years. He believed this was most likely where paintings hung in public buildings and he began to prefer using mahogany panels that would not warp or crack. Further, Stuart had the panels roughened to resemble twilled canvas. Sometimes the panels split, but Stuart continued to use them through the 1820s.(13) The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts’ Stuart portraits, "Portrait of Benjamin Tappan" and "Portrait of Sarah Homes Tappan," (1814, oil on panel) are from this period.

In 1803, Stuart and his family left Philadelphia at first to follow the national government’s move to Washington. The artist’s plan was to continue to paint important personages, and get rich off of making copies. By 1805 however, Stuart and his family settled in Boston and the artist returned to formulaic portraits during this time. One notable development was Stuart’s depiction of the sitter’s skin, whereby the artist experimented in order to achieve greater naturalism in the coloring of flesh.

Since the 1780s, Stuart had recommended depicting human flesh with a rich, opalescent affect, but, “about 1811 he seems to have been trying to transcribe more effectively the peculiar glow of living tissue.”(14) For example, in his portrait of "Samuel Alleyne Otis" (1811, National Gallery of Art), Stuart models highlights and lower middle tones in order to enhance the beauty of natural skin coloring. The effect is not only more realistic, but also reinforces the idea of the sublime.

About 1820, a much respected Boston frameworker and picture dealer, John Doggett, formulated a plan to exhibit Stuart’s works in London. The aging artist (by this time, he was sixty-five) rose to the occasion and some believe produced the best work of his career. Doggett commissioned three-quarter length portraits of the first five presidents (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe). The plan was then for Doggett to exhibit the paintings in his gallery, and then have them engraved and sold to the general public. In the end, the completed series was not exhibited and it was sent straight to Paris to be lithographed. Unfortunately, the Adams and Jefferson portraits, along with a third from the series, were destroyed in a fire at the Library of Congress in Washington in 1851.(15)

One of Stuart’s most striking portraits is that of President John Adams (National Museum of American Art). Painted in 1826, the painting was commissioned by Adams’ son, John Quincy, after the elder statesman’s death. The painting was to be a copy of an earlier portrait, also commissioned by John Quincy, from 1823, which was painted from life. Of the 1823 portrait, John Quincy said: “…Stuart caught a glimpse of the living spirit shining through the feeble and decrepit body. He saw the old man at one of those happy moments when the intelligence lights up the wasted envelope, and what he saw he fixed upon the canvas.” (16) With the 1826 portrait, in the absence of the sitter, more of Stuart’s own interpretation of Adams’ character came through. The image is less finished, with bare patched of canvas visible in the face.(17) It is a stirring portrait of the former president that not only captures his image, but his soul.

Stuart died in Boston in 1828 and left behind a legacy in portrait painting that would forever change the face of American art. Stuart’s paintings of George Washington formulated an icon and hero in American history and created an image that survives to the present. His portraits, no matter which the sitter, not only captured their likeness, but their spirit and soul as well. It is unfortunate that Stuart was plagued with depression and violent mood swings throughout his entire life, as there is no idea as to what more he could have accomplished. (18) Novelist Herman Melville best described the works that were completed and survive to us today. Describing a single work by Stuart in 1852, he said: “a glorious gospel framed and hung upon the wall…declaring to all people, as from the Mount, that man is a noble, godlike being, full of choicest juices; made up of strength and beauty.”(19)


1) Dorinda Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999: xvi.
2) Ibid, 4.
3) Ibid, 10.
4) This is not a professional diagnosis, as no records from doctors survive today. Scholars assume this is what he suffered from due to descriptive accounts from friends and patrons.
5) Evans, 12.
6) Ibid, 17.
7) Ibid, 24.
8) Ibid 44.
9) The sublime was a concept introduced into landscape painting in the eighteenth-century, in that painting could represent the awe, power, and magnificence of God’s creation. It is most associated with the depiction of the force of nature, such as storms, raging seas, or the sparse winter.
10) Ibid, 65. The portrait brought such a response that patrons would bring others into Stuart’s studio to see it. As a result, a large number of people wanted copies. Stuart made some, and many were made after his death, such as Thomas Hicks’ version from 1867, which is in the collection at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.
11) Stuart painted at least three other versions of Washington: a three-quarter length portrait from 1797 (New York Public Library) where the president sits in a chair on a porch with a harbor behind him; a full-length portrait entitled Washington at Dorchester Heights (1806, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) in which Washington is depicted in full uniform on the battlefield with his horse; and another half-length portrait that more closely resembles the Athenaeum portrait except that it is completed from 1825 (Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore).
12) Ibid, 74. There was a widespread belief at this time portraits of women should be primarily concerned with beauty, while portraits of men could be more individualized.
13) Ibid, 82.
14) Ibid, 96.
15) Ibid, 104-5.
16) Ibid, 105-6.
17) According to Evans, the painting is more expressive that the original of an energy and intensity that were part of Adams’ personality.
18) For more on Stuart’s mania and its manifestations, see Evans, pp. 118-20.
19) Ibid, 121.

-Letha Cair Robertson 12.15.03

Image credit: After Anson Dickinson, Gilbert Stuart, about 1825, oil on wood, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., NPG.66.17, Photograph courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © CC0


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