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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828)

The most successful and resourceful portraitist of America’s early national period, Gilbert Stuart possessed abundant natural talent which he devoted to the representation of human likeness and character, bringing his witty and irascible manner to bear on each of his works, including his incisive portraits of George Washington. Stuart’s legacy is defined by the seemingly contradictory aspects of his life. He was quite prolific, executing more than 1,100 portraits, despite bouts of depression that sent him to his bed for weeks at a time. Like other artists of his caliber, he is remembered for his masterpieces, despite a pattern of failing to finish or summarily finishing works that bored him. He commanded high prices, but constantly teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. More than a few of the sitters who enjoyed his company and anticipated the skillful portrait that would result were disappointed with the painter’s slow, dilatory work habits. Said John Adams, who sat for the artist several times, “Mr. Stuart thinks it the prerogative of genius to disdain the performance of his engagements.”

Stuart usually follows Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley in the canonical story of American art and, as a student of the former and admirer of the latter, his attachments to these elder painters are undeniable. His career nearly parallels that of his almost exact contemporary John Trumbull (06.1346.2), whose equally complex and testy personality matched Stuart’s erratic disposition. The principle difference between the two is that, while Trumbull alternated between anger at his patrons and guilt for not having pleased them, Stuart remained unfailingly sanctimonious. He knew well the conventions of portraiture, easily rendered the attributes of gentility and affluence, and succeeded time and again in executing portraits that fulfilled in pictorial terms the wishes and desires of his sitters. That said, he maintained that his success had little to do with a sitter’s character or accomplishments, but rather more with his own artistic abilities. More than once, Stuart escorted to his studio door sitters who thought otherwise.

Stuart first proved his talent in Newport, Rhode Island, near his hometown of North Kingston. In portraits executed there, Stuart revealed not merely precocious talent but adept technique controlled by his rather quirky and appealing take on contemporary British portraiture. He mastered the techniques of the English grand manner during his years in London (1777–87) and Dublin (1787–93). For an American painter, study in England was a prerequisite for attaining greatness, but Stuart traveled there more due to haphazard circumstances than deliberate action, a pattern that would be repeated again and again. It took him five years to achieve acclaim for his work in London, but after the exhibition of masterful full-length portraits like Captain John Gell (2000.450), he joined the ranks of the best and most sought-after British painters.

Success abroad spurred Stuart toward greater ambition: to paint a portrait of George Washington. He left Dublin in early 1793 and headed for New York, where he garnered commissions from the rich and famous, such as General Horatio Gates (1977.243) and Josef de Jaudenes y Nebot and his American wife (07.75; 07.76). He completed these commissions at an extraordinary pace and with remarkable skill, which may be attributed not only to the caliber of his clientele, but to the extra effort Stuart was willing to make in order to succeed in the work that really interested him—securing the requisite introductions to the President.

Stuart moved to Philadelphia in 1795, when arrangements with Washington were a certainty. He had several sittings with the sixty-three-year-old President, the result of which were numerous portraits of differing image, quality, and purpose. The first sitting was in March 1795, from which he executed the so-called Vaughan image (07.160), and he received another series of sittings in March 1796, when the full-length image was commissioned. Stuart’s trouble with Washington belies the degree of spontaneity in many of the portraits. An artist accustomed to easily engaging and enlivening his clients with conversation and jokes, Stuart was at a loss with Washington: “An apathy seemed to seize him and a vacuity spread over his countenance, most appalling to paint.” Yet, despite the struggle to capture the President’s elusive character, Stuart succeeded in executing the image that was then and is now considered to be a definitive and insightful likeness.