Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) created the most lasting images of George Washington, and he also invented definitive images of the next four American presidents. This legacy alone would be enough to secure Stuart's lasting fame. However, his contribution to American portraiture extends well beyond painting the political leaders of the new republic. Stuart's subjects include prominent and lesser-known figures in both the Old and New Worlds. In addition, he introduced a new level of sophistication to the American portrait, achieving convincing likenesses and successful representations of character through his choice of pose and expression.
Like a number of early American painters, Stuart learned his trade in Great Britain. He was a sociable, loquacious fellow who delighted, exasperated, and at times offended his patrons. This complex man lived a life filled with contradictions. Although he was a prolific painter, he took years to complete some portraits and left scores unfinished, failing to deliver them at all. Despite being in demand, he often found himself in debt the was a poor manager of money who enjoyed luxury and the good life. Yet Stuart's unmatched ability to capture likeness more than compensated for his erratic behavior and earned him a devoted following. He was the most sought-after American portraitist of his era and today is counted among the greatest early American artists.