Gilbert Stuart
An old man with gray hair combed back and black coat
Portrait of Gilbert Stuart by Sarah Goodridge, 1825
Born
Gilbert Charles Stewart[1]

(1755-12-03)December 3, 1755
DiedJuly 9, 1828(1828-07-09) (aged 72)
NationalityAmerican
Known forPainting
Notable work
George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait) (1796)
George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) (1796)
George Washington (Vaughan Portrait) (1795)
The Skater (1782)
Catherine Brass Yates (1794)
John Adams (1824)

Gilbert Charles Stuart (born Stewart; December 3, 1755 – July 9, 1828) was an American painter from Rhode Island Colony who is widely considered one of America's foremost portraitists.[2] His best known work is the unfinished portrait of George Washington, begun in 1796, that is sometimes referred to as the Athenaeum Portrait. Stuart retained the portrait and used it to paint scores of copies that were commissioned by patrons in America and abroad. The image of George Washington featured in the painting has appeared on the United States one-dollar bill for more than a century[2] and on various postage stamps of the 19th century and early 20th century.[3]

Stuart produced portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six Presidents.[4] His work can be found today at art museums throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Frick Collection in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Portrait Gallery, London, Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.[5]

Biography

Early life

Gilbert Stuart was born on December 3, 1755, in Saunderstown, a village of North Kingstown in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, and he was baptized at Old Narragansett Church on April 11, 1756.[6][7] He was the third child of Gilbert Stewart,[8] a Scottish immigrant employed in the snuff-making industry, and Elizabeth Anthony Stewart, a member of a prominent land-owning family from Middletown, Rhode Island.[4] Stuart's father owned the first snuff mill in America, which was located in the basement of the family homestead.[9]

Stuart moved to Newport, Rhode Island at the age of six, where his father pursued work in the merchant field. In Newport, he first began to show great promise as a painter.[10] In 1770, he made the acquaintance of Scottish artist Cosmo Alexander, a visitor to the colonies who made portraits of local patrons and who became a tutor to Stuart.[11][12] Under the guidance of Alexander, Stuart painted the portrait Dr. Hunter's Spaniels when he was 14; it hangs today in the Hunter House Mansion in Newport.[7]

In 1771, Stuart moved to Scotland with Alexander to finish his studies; however, Alexander died in Edinburgh one year later. Stuart tried to maintain a living and pursue his painting career, but to no avail, so he returned to Newport in 1773.[13]

England and Ireland

Highlighted face of a solemn young man, surrounded by a dark background.
Self-portrait, painted in 1778

Stuart's prospects as a portraitist were jeopardized by the onset of the American Revolution and its social disruptions. He was a Loyalist[14] and departed for England in 1775 following the example set by John Singleton Copley.[15] His painting style during this period began to develop beyond the relatively hard-edged and linear style that he had learned from Alexander.[16] He was unsuccessful at first in pursuit of his vocation, but he became a protégé of Benjamin West in 1777 and studied with him for the next six years. The relationship was beneficial, with Stuart exhibiting for the first time at the Royal Academy in spring of 1777.[17]

A well dressed young man taking graceful steps, arms folded.
The Skater, 1782, a portrait of Sir William Grant

By 1782, Stuart had met with success, largely due to acclaim for The Skater, a portrait of William Grant. It was Stuart's first full-length portrait and, according to art historian Margaret C. S. Christman, it "belied the prevailing opinion that Stuart 'made a tolerable likeness of a face, but as to the figure, he could not get below the fifth button'".[18] Stuart said that he was "suddenly lifted into fame by a single picture".[19]

At one point, the prices for his pictures were exceeded only by those of renowned English artists Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Despite his many commissions, however, he was habitually neglectful of finances and was in danger of being sent to debtors' prison. In 1787, he fled to Dublin, Ireland where he painted and accumulated debt with equal vigor.[20]

New York and Philadelphia

Stuart ended his 18-year stay in Britain and Ireland in 1793, leaving behind numerous unfinished paintings. He returned to the United States with a particular goal in mind: to paint a portrait of George Washington, have an engraver reproduce it, and provide for his family by the sale of the engravings.[21] He settled briefly in New York City and pursued portrait commissions from influential people who could bring him to Washington's attention.[17] In 1794, he painted statesman John Jay, from whom he received a letter of introduction to Washington. In 1795, Stuart moved to Germantown, Philadelphia where he opened a studio,[22][23] and Washington posed for him later that year.[17]

George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) 1796. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Detailed painting of head and shoulders of Washington. Over half of the canvas is blank.
Gilbert Stuart's unfinished 1796 painting of George Washington is also known as The Athenaeum, his most celebrated and famous work

Stuart painted Washington in a series of iconic portraits, each of them leading to a demand for copies and keeping him busy and highly paid for years.[24] The most famous and celebrated of these likenesses is known as The Athenaeum and is portrayed on the United States one-dollar bill. Stuart painted about 75 reproductions of The Athenaeum.[25] However, he never completed the original version; after finishing Washington's face, he kept the original version to make the copies.[26] He sold up to 70 of his reproductions for a price of $100 each, but the original portrait was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1828.[26] The painting was jointly purchased by the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1980, and is generally on display in the National Portrait Gallery.[27][28]

Another celebrated image of Washington is the Lansdowne portrait, a large portrait with one version hanging in the East Room of the White House. This painting was rescued during the Burning of Washington in the War of 1812 thanks to the efforts of First Lady Dolley Madison and Paul Jennings, one of President James Madison's slaves. Four versions of the portrait are attributed to Stuart,[29] and additional copies were painted by other artists for display in U.S. government buildings.[30] In 1803, Stuart opened a studio in Washington, D. C.[31]

Boston, 1805–1828

Stuart moved to Devonshire Street in Boston in 1805, continuing in both critical acclaim and financial troubles.[32] He exhibited works locally at Doggett's Repository[33] and Julien Hall.[34] He was sought out for advice by other artists, such as John Trumbull, Thomas Sully, Washington Allston, and John Vanderlyn.[18]

Personal life

Stuart married Charlotte Coates around September 1786; she was 13 years his junior and "exceedingly pretty".[35] They had 12 children, five of whom died by 1815 and two others died while they were young. Their daughter Jane (1812–1888) was also a painter. She sold many of his paintings and her replicas of them from her studios in Boston and Newport, Rhode Island.[36] In 2011, she was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.[37]

In 1824, he suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed, but he still continued to paint for two years until his death in Boston on July 9, 1828, at 72.[38] He was buried in the Old South Burial Ground of the Boston Common.

Stuart left his family deeply in debt, and his wife and daughters were unable to purchase a grave site. He was, therefore, buried in an unmarked grave which was purchased cheaply from Benjamin Howland, a local carpenter.[39] His family recovered from their financial troubles 10 years later, and they planned to move his body to a family cemetery in Newport. However, they could not remember the exact location of his body, and it was never moved.[40] There is a monument for Stuart, his wife, and their children at the Common Burying Ground in Newport.[41]

The Boston Athenæum held a benefit exhibition of Stuart's works in August 1828 in an effort to provide financial aid for his family. More than 250 portraits were lent for this critically acclaimed and well-subscribed exhibition. This also marked the first public showing of his unfinished 1796 Athenæum Head portrait of Washington.[42]

Legacy

By the end of his career, Gilbert Stuart had painted the likenesses of more than 1,000 American political and social figures.[43] He was praised for the vitality and naturalness of his portraits, and his subjects found his company agreeable. John Adams said:

Speaking generally, no penance is like having one's picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation.[44]

Stuart was known for working without the aid of sketches, beginning directly upon the canvas, which was very unusual for the time period. His approach is suggested by the advice which he gave to his pupil Matthew Harris Jouett: "Never be sparing of colour, load your pictures, but keep your colours as separate as you can. No blending, tis destruction to clear & bea[u]tiful effect."[18]

John Henri Isaac Browere created a life mask of Stuart around 1825.[45] In 1940, the U.S. Post Office issued a series of postage stamps called the "Famous Americans Series" commemorating famous artists, authors, inventors, scientists, poets, educators, and musicians. Gilbert Stuart is found on the 1 cent issue in the artists category, along with James McNeil Whistler, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and Frederic Remington.

Today, Stuart's birthplace in Saunderstown, Rhode Island is open to the public as the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum. The museum consists of the original house where he was born, with copies of his paintings hanging throughout the house. The museum opened in 1930.[46]

Gilbert Stuart's paintings of Washington, Jefferson, and others have served as models for dozens of U.S. postage stamps. Washington's image from the famous portrait The Athenaeum is probably the most noted example of Stuart's work on postage.

Notable people painted

This is a partial list of portraits painted by Stuart.[47]