The son of a Scottish emigré who settled near Newport, Rhode Island, Gilbert Stuart demonstrated a precocious artistic talent coupled with an irreverent manner and somewhat rebellious spirit. He honed his skills on a trip to Edinburgh in 1772–73 and a visit to Boston in 1774, and, upon his return to Newport, attracted the local elite, many of them business associates of his father. The first signs of his technical skill are apparent in relatively primitive works fashioned according to the model of contemporary Scottish portraiture, such as the ambitious 1774 double portrait of Francis Malbone and his brother Saunders, painted when the artist was not yet twenty (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). His portrait of his close friend, Benjamin Waterhouse (Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport) from the next year shows vast improvement, and this accomplishment led him to seek more training abroad.
In 1775, Stuart traveled to London to seek his fortune. He soon secured a position as an assistant to another American who had relocated to London—the renowned artist Benjamin West (1738–1820), history painter for King George III. Stuart benefited greatly from this relationship and, with the 1782 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts of his boldly original and highly acclaimed full-length portrait The Skater (William Grant) (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), the young American became one of the most sought-after painters in Britain. He was also on good terms with the Academy's president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (portrait on loan from National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), who recommended Stuart for many jobs, and the print seller John Boydell, who, in 1785, ordered from Stuart fifteen portraits of contemporary artists, six of which were featured in the exhibition.
After a decade in London, Stuart's reputation grew along with his debts. To escape his creditors, he moved to the comparatively small city of Dublin, where he executed grand commissions with little competition, and continued to master the techniques of Grand Manner portraiture. Among his most important works from the period is the 1789 portrait of the newly appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland, John FitzGibbon (The Cleveland Museum of Art), whose aloof and regal pose Stuart would find useful later in his career. His Irish clients—who received him as a British painter, and commissioned paintings on the grand scale they expected from one trained in London—may have been surprised to learn of Stuart's American roots when he spoke of returning to his native soil to paint the new president of the United States.
In 1793, the artist sailed for New York, where he would make the proper connections to gain a sitting with President George Washington. He received numerous commissions, which he completed with great speed and skill, proving himself worthy of painting the leader of country. Among his distinguished clients were Josef de Jaudenes y Nebot, the Spanish chargé d'affaires to the United States, and his new bride Matilda Stoughton de Jaudenes, the daughter of the wealthy American diplomat John Stoughton, both of whose highly ornamented portraits he painted in 1794 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Ultimately, through his friend, the diplomat John Jay—whose portrait he also painted (private collection)—the necessary introductions were made and, assured of sittings with George Washington, Stuart moved to Philadelphia—at that time, the nation's capital.
Stuart was granted three sittings with Washington in 1795–96, bringing the skills honed in Britain to bear on his work. In these paintings, he satisfied the need in America for lasting images of its early national leaders created in an international language of portraiture. Stuart created three portrait types for the president: a bust-length facing left (the so-called Vaughan image), another facing right (the Athenaeum version) and a full-length composition (the Lansdowne). The exhibition brought together several of each type, including four full-lengths. These grand paintings had never before been seen side by side. The display engaged viewers by showing the variations in Stuart's signature work, which Stuart continued to replicate for the next thirty years, and explained the genesis of the portrait that most Americans know so well as the face on the one-dollar bill.
Stuart lived in Philadelphia until 1803. In addition to working with Washington there, he painted many of the city's elite. A tour-de-force, from about 1802 is his portrait of Mrs. Perez Morton (Worcester Art Museum), the so-called American Sappho, a poet and great beauty who inspired one of Stuart's most captivating works. He followed the government to Washington, D.C., where he continued to paint the country's leaders. A number of his sitters came from the diplomatic corps, among them Jerome Bonaparte and his stunning wife, Elizabeth Patterson, painted just after their marriage (both, private collections). Stuart's career spanned the terms of the first five presidents and, while in Washington, he received sittings with John and Abigail Adams—pictures that consumed him for more than a decade as he pondered how best to portray this captivating couple—and with Thomas Jefferson, the handsome and intelligent third president. Stuart also painted James Monroe (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) as well as James Madison (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) and First Lady Dolley Madison (The White House)—a pair of pictures that were shown together in the exhibition for the first time in more than a century.
Stuart spent his last two decades in Boston, where patrons admired his work, despite the unpredictable delays and crankiness that increased in Stuart's old age. The work never diminished in expression or skill. His portrait of retired general Henry Knox (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) was a monumental success, while his delicate likeness of the young Lydia Smith on the eve of her marriage (private collection) is a portrayal of great sensitivity. At a time when portraits were used in the United States both to celebrate the national achievement of public heroes as well as to express the self-aware experiences of private individuals, Stuart raised the bar on portrait painting for his sitters, his colleagues, and his students.