Saturday, 6 December 2014


“What a business is this of a portrait painter! You bring him a potato and expect he will paint you a peach.” - Gilbert Charles Stuart

For Art Sunday, an American painter active in the late 18th to early 19th century. Gilbert Stuart, in full Gilbert Charles Stuart (born December 3, 1755, Saunderstown, Rhode Island colony [now in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, U.S.] died July 9, 1828, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.), was an American painter who was one of the great portrait painters of his era and the creator of a distinctively American portrait style.

Stuart grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, where he learned the rudiments of painting. In 1775 he went to London and entered the studio of the expatriate American artist Benjamin West, with whom he worked for about six years. His mature style owes more, however, to the work of Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds than to West. In 1782 Stuart opened his own London studio, and for five years he received portrait commissions from some of England's most distinguished gentlemen.

After his apprenticeship, Stuart became London's leading portrait painter, next to Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, whose style he emulated, as in a rare full-length portrait of William Grant of Congalton as The Skater (ca. 1782). For a while Stuart lived in splendour, but being a bad businessman and a profligate spender, he was in constant debt. He fled to Dublin in 1787 to escape his creditors. He lived in Ireland from 1787 to 1792 and then returned to America to make a fortune, he said, by painting Washington's portrait.

This last phase of his career was so successful that Stuart had more work than he could handle. He'd developed his own distinctive style (emulated by the next generation of painters) that led to the title, “Father of American Portraiture”. After living in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., he settled in Boston in 1805, and spent the next 24 years painting Presidents, First Ladies, important figures in early American history and - of course - wealthy people from all along the Eastern seaboard.

Though he is best known today for his portraits of George Washington, Stuart is credited with well over 1,000 bust-, three-quarter- and full-length works. Many of these were unfinished and attribution is somewhat problematic at times, as he almost never signed his work. And, despite these many, hefty commissions, he never did develop any business sense. Ironically, the artist whose work is seen millions of times each day (on the U.S. $1 bill) died broke.

Stuart was known for working without the aid of sketches, beginning directly upon the canvas. This was very unusual for the time period. His approach is suggested by the advice 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.”  Stuart's works can be found today at art museums and private collections throughout the United States and Great Britain, including the University Club in New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

His daughter, Jane Stuart (1812-1888), also a painter, sold many of his paintings and her replicas of them from her studios in Boston and Newport, Rhode Island. A life mask of Stuart was created by John Henri Isaac Browere around 1825. 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. Along with the artists James McNeil Whistler, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French and Frederic Remington, Gilbert Stuart is found on the 1 cent issue in the Artists category.

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 Stuart was born in, with copies of paintings from throughout his career hanging throughout the house. The museum opened in 1930.

Stuart painted George Washington in a series of iconic portraits, each of them leading in turn to a demand for copies and keeping Stuart busy and highly paid for years. The most famous and celebrated of these likenesses, known as “The Athenaeum” (shown here), is currently portrayed on the United States one dollar bill. Stuart, along with his daughters, painted a total of 130 reproductions of The Athenaeum. However, Stuart never completed the original version; after finishing Washington's face, the artist kept the original version to make the copies. He sold up to 70 of his reproductions for a price of US$100 each, but the original portrait was left unfinished at the time of Stuart's death in 1828.

1 comment:

  1. Because "art was what came out of Italy and France", I did an Fine Arts degree without ever having heard very much about American portraitists. So I was delighted to find Stuart myself. And I agree that his mature style owes more to the work of the British genius portraitists, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, than it does to Benjamin West.

    The Cultural Cringe will be very familiar to Australian fans of fine art.