At the outset of the American Revolution, after his loyalist family fled to Nova Scotia, Stuart moved to London. He floundered for a year on his own, earning a meager living as an organist, before being introduced to the artist Benjamin West, a fellow American who was history painter to the king, George III. West, a generous mentor to several young American artists, brought the destitute Stuart into his studio as an assistant.
With West’s guidance and under the influence of contemporary English artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, Stuart’s technique underwent a dramatic shift. He adopted a more sophisticated use of color and modeling, employed freer brushwork, and experimented with innovative compositions, such as the portrait of William Grant skating. With its highly unusual depiction of a figure in motion, this full-length canvas received much attention. Skating, a subject frequently found in genre paintings, had been untried in portraits of this size. Soon after the exhibition of this portrait at the Royal Academy of Arts, Stuart was able to establish himself as an independent artist. He won a plum commission to paint a series of portraits of fifteen London painters and engravers and received commissions from members of the aristocracy.
Critics marveled at Stuart’s ability to depict the character of his sitters. One fine example is the sensitive portrait of Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, whose expression conveys a sense of both dignity and weariness. On behalf of the Iroquois nation, Brant had come to London to petition the British throne for protection of land rights, a demanding and sometimes futile role. He wears a striking costume that combines native regalia with English silver adornment, including an ornamental collar awarded by the king.