Gilbert Stuart, Self Portrait
In the case of Gilbert Stuart, the second of our painters, we are dealing with a more talented artist, one of the greatest portrait painters of all time, but a much less intellectually-engaged or public-spirited figure than Charles Willson Paine.
Like Peale, Stuart grew up in relative poverty. His father, Gilbert Stuart, Sr., had come to Rhode Island from his native Scotland in the early 1750s at the behest of a local entrepreneur to help build America’s first mill for grinding snuff. The painter was, in fact, born in the upper story of this mill on December 13, 1755.
The Snuff Mill in Saunderstown, Rhode Island in which Gilbert Stuart was born in 1755
Stuart’s childhood, like Peale’s, was filled with insecurity. His father proved to be a rather poor businessman, who sold his share of the snuff mill after a few years, and moved his family to Newport, where the Stuarts lived in an abode on the waterfront that one account describes as a hovel on Bannister’s Wharf. Like Peale Stuart attended a charity school.
However, the boy’s obvious talent for drawing came to the notice of several art lovers of Newport who gave him support and encouragement.
Most important was the instruction that he received from the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander, who reached Newport about 1769 when Stuart was fourteen. Here was a real artist who had studied in Italy and who was a member of the London Society of Artists. Stuart was delighted when the Scotsman took him on as an apprentice.
Cosmo Alexander’s “Catherine Ross” (1766)
Stuart accompanied Alexander on a painting tour of the southern colonies in 1771, and then followed his master back home to his birthplace in Scotland.
For a short time the young man prospered in Glasgow and then in Edinburgh, but on August 25, 1772, Cosmo Alexander suddenly died, and Stuart, then barely sixteen years of age, found himself stranded in Scotland, destitute in a strange city.
For the next two years Stuart lived a hand-to-mouth existence, an experience that left a deep scar on his psyche. Finally, he seized a desperate expedient , and enlisted before the mast on a coal carrying vessel bound for Nova Scotia. His two year ordeal in Britain and the harrowing trans-Atlantic voyage back home in 1773, were traumatic aspects of his life that Stuart always refused to talk about.
Stuart’s John Bannister (1774)
Resuming his painting career in Newport, things almost immediately took a turn for the better. Stuart, after all, was now one of that small number of American painters who had studied abroad.
In 1774 he completed this portrait of wealthy Newport merchant John Bannister, reputedly the richest man in Newport. This work illustrates Stuart’s relative lack of sophistication, despite his exposure to European influence, but one must bear in mind that the painter was still only nineteen years of age.
Stuart prospered in Newport, but recognizing his limitations was hesitant to experiment with subject matter that would take him out of the narrow range of face-painting, even declining a commission for a full-length portrait of Abraham Redwood, the founder of Newport’s Redwood Library, the oldest lending library in America, founded in 1747. The refusal of this commission by Redwood apparently injured Stuart’s reputation. In addition the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775 led to a general decline in the demand for portraits.
At this point Stuart decided to return to Europe to seek additional instruction, traveling by way of British-occupied Boston. He left Boston, incidentally, on June 16, 1775, the day before the fateful Battle of Bunker Hill.
When Stuart arrived in London in the summer of 1775, he had only enough money in his pocket to keep him a few days in the British capital. He had hoped to stay with his close friend and former Newport schoolmate Benjamin Waterhouse, who would later become a prominent physician, only to discover that Waterhouse had departed for Edinburgh. His well-known painting Man in the Green Coat, completed in 1785, is believed to be a painting of Waterhouse. In any event, Stuart was again temporarily reduced to penury in a strange land.
With the return of Waterhouse from Scotland, his fortunes took a turn for the better. When Waterhouse’s uncle, Dr. John Fothergill one of the leading physicians in London, commissioned Stuart to paint his portrait, the young painter was handed a golden opportunity. However, Stuart was psychologicall unable to grasp the opportunity. His examination of the great works of portraiture in London apparently intimidated him. Not until 1781 (six years later did he finally complete the Fothergill painting, by which time his patron was dead.
Stuart’s Man in a Green Coat, believed to be a portrait of his friend Benjamin Waterhouse
At length Stuart sought to save himself by writing to fellow-American Benjamin West, a major figure in the British art world, begging that the great painter take him under his wing.
Benjamin West, Self Portrait (1763)
Giving up all pretense of being a professional, Stuart pleaded: Pity me, good sir. I’ve just arrived at the age of twenty-one and find myself ignorant, without business or friends, without the necessities of life, so far that for some time I have been reduced to one miserable meal a day, and frequently not even that.
When West, a man of notable generosity, agreed to take Stuart under his wing, the young man’s life reached a significant turning point.
For the next five years Stuart acted as the principal assistant to the leading historical painter in England, often helping West complete his so-called ten acre canvasses. It is notable that Stuart never attempted an historical painting of his own. To those who questioned his lack of artistic versatility, he would assert, with perhaps some degree of embarrassment, No one would paint history who could paint a portrait!
What Stuart gained from his time as West’s student and assistant was exposure to the first gentlemen of the realm. He rapidly absorbed their breeding and culture, becoming a brilliant and witty conversationalist. He also observed and absorbed the techniques of the greatest British portraitists of the day, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and George Romney.
Here we see Stuart’s portrait of James Ward completed during his years as West’s assistant.
Stuart, James Ward (1779). The pose, costume, and canine companion Stuart introduced here echoed portraits of British royalty from the 1600s. This aristocratic style was in great demand in Georgian England.
Stuart exhibited his portraits at the Royal Academy after 1777, winning favorable comment from British art critics, though they were also inclined to complain of a certain lack of elegance and initiative in his output. Stuart, after all, was an American. London’s art connoisseurs also noted that while he painted excellent likenesses, there was an element of stylistic repetitiveness in his portraits. He seemed, they charged, incapable of getting below the fifth button.
To prove these critics wrong about thus supposed lack of versatility, Stuart accepted a commission in 1781 to do a full-length portrait of the prominent Scotsman William Grant. The two men had been out skating and Stuart had an inspiration. He would paint Grant in the attitude of a skater. Thus was created one of Stuart’s most celebrated canvasses, which had the immediate effect of raising him to fame in the British art world.
Stuart, The Skater (1782)
Stuart followed up this triumph by establishing an independent studio in London and quickly rose to the position of the leading young portraitist in Britain.
Notables of every description now sought to have their portrait painted by this immensely talented American: members of the nobility such as John, Lord Fitzgibbon; celebrities such as John Philip Kemble, the leading English actor of the day; even the picturesque Chief of the Mohawk Indians, Joseph Brant, who visited England in the mid-1780s.
Stuart, John, Lord Fitzgibbon (1789)
Stuart, Mohawk Chieftain Joseph Brant (1786)
Here we see Stuart’s portrait of major British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, also completed in the 1780s.
Stuart, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1784)
In 1826 Stuart married Charlotte Coates, sister of Dr. William Coates of the Royal Navy. She was said to be a gifted contralto and the couple shared a great love of music. Gilbert and Charlotte would have five sons and seven daughters over the course of their marriage. According to daughter Jane, Charlotte’s family initially did not approve of the marriage because of Stuart’s “reckless habits,” which would shortly have a telling effect on their life together.
A delighted Stuart, still in his twenties, sought to emulate the lifestyle of the leaders of English fashion, hiring the best French cooks money could buy, clothing himself in the latest fashions, acquiring the finest carriages and living in great splendor, with the perhaps inevitable result of his spending his considerable income faster than it came in. As one of his leading biographers noted of Stuart in this period of excess, he was a lord while it lasted, and when it was gone he was a devil. One day he was dining with earls, dukes, and princes, the star of a brilliant salon. In twenty-four hours he was cracking jokes to his companions in debtor’s prison
Debtor’s Prison, London
Stuart painted within a very narrow compass. In his entire career he produced not one history painting or landscape, and hardly any of his completed works contain more than two figures. He was a portraitist plain and simple. Even his full-length portraits were relatively few. He also rarely painted children, though he clearly had the ability to do so, and animals seemed to be altogether beyond his power.
Then, following his release from prison, the painter quite suddenly disappeared from London. He had fled to Ireland to avoid his clamoring creditors. Stuart remained there a total of six years, again producing a succession of handsome portraits of aristocrats and public officials, but here too he quickly fell into debt.
Stuart, William Fitzgibbon, Duke of Leinster, Master of the Rolls in Ireland (1787)
In accepting commissions Stuart would take half payment at the beginning of a work, labor at the painting for a time, and then, needing more money, he would toss the canvass aside and begin another work. When his friends urged him to complete the works contracted for, he responded with characteristic arrogance: The artists of Dublin will get employment in finishing them. The possessors will be well off. The likeness is there , and the finishing will be better than I should have made it.
In 1792, when his debts again threatened to land him in jail, Stuart decided to place the Atlantic Ocean between himself and his creditors. He believed there was a handsome income to be made from painting the portraits of the leaders of the new nation, especially the much-revered George Washington, hero of the Revolution and now first President of the United States. But his painterly output was not be limited to political figures. His uncanny ability to penetrate the character of his sitters was especially evident in his portraits he painted of elegant women.
Stuart, Mrs. Richard Yates (Catherine Brass Yates, 1794)
Stuart, Mrs. Perez Morton (Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton), a work completed in 1802. The most notable feature of this elegant portrait is the way Stuart filled in the background with relatively few brushstrokes.
In 1795 Stuart established a studio in Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital, where he became in effect the American court painter. Shortly after his arrival, he painted George Washington for the first time.
Stuart, Vaughn portrait of George Washington (1795)
Washington hated sitting for portraits, and each time he did so, he swore it would be his last. Stuart, a brilliant conversationalist, employed that skill to get at the personality of his sitters, but he found the austere Washington impenetrable. Though Stuart considered his first portrait of Washington, the so-called Vaughn Washington, a failure, that did not prevent him from making fifteen copies of it for various buyers.
Stuart’s second opportunity to paint the President came later in the same year when he was persuaded by U.S. Senator William Bingham and his wife to do a full length portrait of the Washington. When the Chief Executive arrived at Stuart’s studio his lower face was pulled out of shape by a new pair of false teeth that had been recently inserted and the resulting portrait is accordingly the least attractive of Stuart’s portraits of Washington. Yet like the earlier Vaughn rendering many copies were made of this work, the so-called Lansdowne Washington. Stuart made an industry out of painting the great man. One of these Lansdowne copies, incidentally, was the one that Dolly Madison went to such lengths to save from destruction when the British army descended on the Washington, D.C. during the war of 1812.
Stuart, The Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, his second and least satisfactory portrait of the President (1796).
Stuart’s third portrait of Washington was far more elegant—the so-called Athenaeum portrait, thus named because it came to be hung in the Boston Atheneaum. The engraving that appears on the one dollar bill is based on this painting, yet as was his usual practice, Stuart left the background unfinished. Stuart also painted at the same time a companion portrait of Martha Washington. Both works were completed in Germantown, just outside of Philadelphia in 1796. Stuart, incidentally, never delivered these portraits to the President. He instead used the this third and most successful portrait of Washington as the model for numerous replicas ordered from him over the years. A total of no less than sixty copies of the Athenaeum portrait are known to exist. One visitor to the new United States commented tartly: “Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home, just as we have images of God’s saints” in ours. Stuart, reportedly referred to these paintings somewhat irreverently as his hundred dollar bills—that being the price he charged for a copy.
Stuart, The Athenaeum portrait of Washington (1796), so named because they were painted to hang in the Boston Athenaeum, the original home of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Stuart, The artist’s companion portrait of Martha Washington painted at the same time as the Athenaeum Portrait (1796)
Stuart’s testiness, pride, and unwillingness to book criticism were legendary. When Washington’s Secretary of War, Henry Knox, offended the painter, he turned his portrait of Knox, upon which he was then at work, temporarily at least, into a door for his pigsty.
Stuart, Henry Knox, fist U.S. Secretary of War
In 1803 Stuart moved his studio from Germantown, outside of Philadelphia, to the new national capital in Washington, where he immediately became the leading portraitist, completing paintings of innumerable statesmen over the next three years including Thomas Jefferson, and his Secretary of State and presidential successor, James Madison. The Washington, D.C. interlude was relatively brief, however, and may have had something to do with the shift from Federalist to Republican Party control of the national government.
Stuart, James Madison, fourth President of the United States
In 1805, Stuart left Washington and relocated in Boston, where he spent the last twenty-three years of his life, and where he was inundated with commissions. Stuart left Boston a legacy of portraiture of incredible richness. A Boston house was not considered properly furnished in these years without one or more of Stuart’s portraits hanging on its walls.
Possibly the most significant work of his Boston period was another rendering of Washington, this one commemorating the general’s victory at Dorchester Heights which forced the evacuation of Boston by the British on March 17, 1776. This unusually large Stuart canvass, which is 11 feet in height and six feet in width was commissioned by Samuel Parkman of Boston and was completed in just ten days.
Stuart, Washington at Dorchester Heights (1806)
Stuart did portraits of just about everyone of prominence in Boston in the 1805 to 1827 period. His subjects included:
Stuart, Harrison Gray Otis (1809)
Harrison Gray Otis, an immensely wealthy merchant and pillar of New England’s dominant Federalist Party, famous for his lavish hospitality, and for the three Charles still standing Charles Bulfinch-designed mansions that he built in and around Beacon Hill.
Here we see a handsome portrait that Stuart painted of the second President, John Adams, now retired to his estate in Quincy, just south of Boston. This portrait was completed in 1815.
Stuart, John Adams (1815)
This handsome portrait of the highly cultured French prelate John-Louis Lefebre de Cheverus, first Roman Catholic Bishop of Boston, was completed in 1823.
Stuart painted this handsome portrait of Josiah Quincy, Boston’s second Mayor, the so-called “Great Mayor” in 1824. Quincy’s single greatest claim to fame was the construction of a new Public Market in Boston, now known as the Quincy Market, which Stuart inserted into the background of the portrait.
Stuart, Josiah Quincy, Boston’s “Great Mayor,” who served as from 1823-28 (1824)
One of Stuart’s last works was this portrait of the elderly John Adams, then nearly 91 years of age, completed the year before the former President’s death on July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation of American independence. Adams died in the very wing chair beside the fireplace in the old Adams mansion in which he had posed he had posed for Stuart.
Stuart, John Adams at the age of ninety (1825)
Stuart’s own life was now quickly coming to a close. Here we see a portrait of Stuart by his compatriot Charles Willson Peale, painted in collaboration with his son, Rembrant Peale, which was done when Stuart was 50 years of age and still in relatively good health. Stuart’s son, Gilbert Stuart, Jr. judged this painting a highly accurate representation of his father.
Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart (1805)
Stuart, however, did not age gracefully. A heavy drinker, who suffered from gout and partial paralysis, his once sturdy frame slowly withered away in the last two decades of his life.
Gilbert Stuart, arguably the greatest portrait painter in American history, died on July 9th, 1828, at the age of seventy-three, in the fifty-second year of the great republic the countenances of whose founders and heroes he had done so much to pass down to future generations.