Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), American painter, was the classical portraitist of the early republic, painting likenesses that hovered between meticulous representations and idealized generalizations. He created the iconic image of George Washington as the Father of His Country.
Gilbert Stuart was born in North Kingston, R.I., on Dec. 3, 1755. At the age of 13 or 14 he studied art with the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander in Newport. With Alexander he made a tour of the South and a journey to Edinburgh, where Alexander died in 1772. For about a year Stuart remained, poverty-stricken, in Scotland, but finally, working as a sailor, he managed to get back to America. There he executed a few portraits in a hard limner fashion. With the Revolutionary War threatening, his family, who had Tory sympathies, fled to Nova Scotia, and Stuart sailed for London, where he remained from 1775 to 1787.
For the first 4 or 5 years, Stuart served as the first assistant of American expatriate painter Benjamin West, who had rescued him from poverty. From the first, Stuart showed an interest only in portraiture and had no desire to go into the branch of history painting West practiced. 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 splendor, but being a bad businessman and a profligate spender, he was in constant debt. He lived in Ireland from 1787 to 1792 and then returned to America to make a fortune, he said, by painting Washington's portrait. He worked in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington until 1805, when he permanently established his studio in Boston.
Stuart's Portraits of Washington
From the first, Stuart seems to have been awed by Washington. "There were features in his face," he observed, "totally different from what I had observed in any other human being. The sockets of the eyes, for instance, were larger than what I ever met with before…. All his features were indicative of the strongest passions." Because of the painter's carefree, libertine ways, Washington behaved coldly toward him. It may have been partly because of this that Stuart interpreted Washington in an aloof and imperious manner, rather than in the more intimate way that Charles Wilson Peale did. Yet it was Stuart who created the iconic image of Washington recognized by generations of Americans.
Stuart painted Washington at a time when the general's physique was beginning to break down and he was wearing false teeth. But there is no hint of this in any of Stuart's portraits. Without obvious flattery, still catching the essential character, he presented careful regularizations and glosses. He made three basic versions of Washington as an elder statesman—all remote, dignified, with a wonderful sense of composure, without exterior paraphernalia or insignia to identify his rank—and based all his future portraits of Washington on them.
The three versions were the Vaughan portrait, showing the right side of Washington's face (1795, original destroyed), the full-length Landsdowne portrait (1796), and the unfinished Athenaeum portrait (1796). After a while, Stuart could produce Washington's features rapidly, with little effort. At the end of his life, according to his daughter, he could dash off portraits of Washington at the rate of one every 2 hours. So popular were the portraits that inferior artists made large sums of money by copying the copies.
Stuart's Other Portraits
By 1792 Stuart's portraits had evolved into remote, detached images like the three main versions of Washington. This had not been the case in England, where, following Gainsborough, he included something of the sitter's environment. For example, The Skater has a bit of landscape and other figures skating in the background; the portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1784) contains part of a curtain and a table with a scroll, and the costume is detailed. But in America, Stuart usually painted the head and shoulders against a bare background. At the end of his career, he would suggest but a hint of the lace of the upper part of the coat or dress by a few quick strokes, or he hired a drapery painter to do this work. Stuart came to specialize in painting faces—nothing more.
No one challenged Stuart's position as the foremost American portraitist of his day. Five presidents and numerous leaders of society sat for him. Among Stuart's American portraits are those of Isabella Henderson Lenox (ca. 1810), Gen. Horatio Gates (ca. 1794), and John Adams (1823). The Lenox portrait is a good example of Stuart's drawing-room portraits of wealthy women. The lady's hair is gathered up in a neat bunch in the back, but the curls fall loosely on her forehead; her neck seems to be gracefully elongated and her eyes slightly enlarged. The outlines are soft. There is a hint of a shadow on her neck. Nothing in the background detracts attention from the sitter's face, which is placed equidistant from the two vertical edges of the canvas. The figure is in three quarter pose. The elegant gown is sketchily indicated; the face is rendered with more detail.
In the portrait of Gen. Gates, Stuart caught something of the pomposity of the man, who had desired to replace Washington as commander in chief—but the painting is still flattering. Stuart does not get to the core of his subject's personality as John Singleton Copley does. Gates's bearing is noble, his eyes look boldly at the observer, but no trace of his inner thoughts can be discerned. Stuart paints only the appearance, but the most generous appearance possible.
Stuart's portrait of John Adams shows the former president at the age of 90. Again Stuart paints external appearances, but here he catches sympathetically the look of old age. Adam's hand is held like a claw, his eyes are watery and look ahead vacantly, the muscular structure of his mouth has weakened, and the skin is soft and saggy. Yet there is nothing repulsive or demeaning; there is still about the figure a sense of aristocracy and high office.
Unlike Copley, who laboriously worked first on one part and then on another part of his portraits, Stuart worked on all parts of the canvas at once. Copley was still tied to the linear tradition of the limners, but Stuart utilized the loose, painterly treatment of contemporary English artists. First he blocked in the principal shapes with the brush (there were no preparatory drawings), and then he put in the opaque colors of the face, which he covered with transparent and semitransparent hues. The final effect was one of freshness and spontaneity. The strokes were applied quickly but surely.
Stuart used few colors—vermilion, lake, and a few others—but he had special mixtures for reflections and shadows. The colors were not blended into one another, for he took care to avoid muddiness, yet there were small gradations between one tone and another. As the opaque underpainting shone forth through the transparent hues, the texture of flesh was suggested remarkably well. Stuart once said that flesh "is like no other substance under heaven. It has all the gaiety of a silk-mercer's shop without its gaudiness of gloss, and all the soberness of old mahogany without its sadness." His technique may be observed in the unfinished portrait of Mrs. Perez Morton (ca. 1802). Here the entire canvas has been worked on. But while the face is complete down to its transparent hues, the arms and veil are still in the sketched-in state.
Stuart set the standard for portrait painting in America in the first half of the 19th century. Because he worked so rapidly, he was able to execute over a thousand commissions in America (besides the numerous Washingtons), and his work could be seen widely. All important American portrait painters in the decades following him either studied briefly with him or, more usually, learned from his works. Among these many artists were Thomas Sully, John Wesley Jarvis, Samuel F. B. Morse, Chester Harding, John Neagle, Ezra Ames, Matthew Jouett, and Mather Brown.
Further Reading on Gilbert Stuart
A comprehensive biography, including recently discovered material, is Charles Merrill Mount, Gilbert Stuart (1964). Lawrence Park, Gilbert Stuart: An Illustrated Descriptive List of His Works (4 vols., 1926), is the most complete catalog of the paintings, with biographical sketches in the first volume.