National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828)
Overview

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Because he portrayed virtually all the notable men and women of the Federal period in the United States, Gilbert Stuart was declared the "Father of American Portraiture" by his contemporaries. Born in Rhode Island, the artist trained and worked in London, England, and Dublin, Ireland, from 1775 to 1793. He then returned to America with the specific intention of painting President Washington's portrait.

Stuart resided in New York (1793-1795); Philadelphia (1795-1803), where he did his first portrait of George Washington; and the new capital at Washington, D.C. (1803-1805). In 1805 he settled in Boston and painted the Gibbs-Coolidge Set, the only surviving depiction of all five first presidents. Before his death at seventy-two, Stuart also taught many followers. A charming conversationalist, Stuart entertained his sitters during long hours of posing to sustain the fresh spontaneity of their expressions. To emphasize facial characterization, he eliminated unnecessary accessories and preferred dark, neutral backgrounds and simple, bust- or half-length formats.

Stuart often was irritatingly slow in completing commissions, in spite of his swift, bravura brushwork. Though he inevitably commanded high prices, Stuart lived on the verge of bankruptcy throughout his career because of his extravagant lifestyle and inept business dealings. In London, for instance, he had owned a carriage, an unheard-of presumption for a commoner. And Stuart's years in Ireland, both coming and going, had been ploys to escape debtors' prison.

Stuart in England and Ireland

Stuart received his earliest artistic training in his native Rhode Island from an itinerant Scottish painter. After sailing to London in 1775 he studied under Benjamin West, a Pennsylvanian who had been the first American artist to achieve renown in Europe.

Stuart's own fame took hold when he exhibited The Skater (Portrait of William Grant) at London's Royal Academy of art in 1782. The painting enlivened England's "Grand Manner" tradition of formal portraiture by depicting Grant in vigorous activity rather than in a static, formal pose. Stuart soon commanded prices higher than any portraitist in London except for the court painters Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

When Stuart's Sir Joshua Reynolds was shown at the Royal Academy in 1784, the portrait annoyed the sitter who, as president of that cultural institution, was jealous of the young American's rising reputation. It depicts Reynolds taking a pinch of snuff, which was simply too undignified for that gentleman's strict, idealizing taste. Nonetheless, Stuart multiplied his successes in Dublin, where he moved in 1787 and gained a monopoly over Irish portraiture before sailing for the new United States in 1793.

A Selection of Stuart's Sitters

The National Gallery of Art lends many of its forty-one portraits by Stuart to government agencies and other institutions. For example, William Thornton and Mrs. William Thornton, a pair of portraits of the Capitol's architect and his wife painted in 1804, are on display at The Octagon House in Washington because that historic building was designed by Thornton. Other Stuarts alternate on view in our American or British rooms, including:

Horace Binney, 1800, Stuart's close friend, a Philadelphia lawyer

Sir John Dick, 1783, Scottish naval officer with a medal from Catherine the Great of Russia

Counselor John Dunn, about 1798, member of the Irish parliament, painted in Philadelphia

Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (Mrs. Lawrence Lewis), about 1805, George Washington's stepgranddaughter, mistress of Woodlawn Plantation outside Alexandria, Virginia; she also posed in 1789-1790 for the National Gallery's Washington Family by Edward Savage

Robert Liston and Henrietta Marchant Liston (Mrs. Robert Liston), 1800, British minister to the United States and his wife

Commodore Thomas Macdonough, about 1818, naval hero in the War of 1812 who captured the British fleet on Lake Champlain

Samuel Alleyne Otis, 1811/1813, Boston merchant; in 1764 his bride had posed for a wedding portrait by John Singleton Copley, Elizabeth Gray Otis (Mrs. Samuel Alleyne Otis), also in the National Gallery of Art

John Randolph, 1804/1805, thirty-two-year-old Virginia orator whose remarkably youthful appearance belied his position as the most forceful member of the federal Congress

Anne Calvert Stuart Robinson (Mrs. William Robinson), about 1812, stepdaughter of Martha Washington's son, John Parke Custis

Benjamin Tappan and Sarah Homes Tappan (Mrs. Benjamin Tappan), 1814, Boston merchant and his wife, a grandniece of Benjamin Franklin

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