Born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1751, Adolph-Ulrich Wertmüller studied painting there and in Paris. Through his cousin, portraitist Alexandre Roslin, he became a student of academic painter Joseph Marie Vien and accompanied Vien to Rome when Vien became director of the French Academy there in 1775. After painting in Rome and in Lyon, Wertmüller returned to Paris, where he worked as a portrait painter and copyist. He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1784; his portrait of French sculptor Jean-Jacques Caffieri (1784, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) was one of his reception pieces on election. He also painted mythological subjects, including the nude Greek nymph Danaë Receiving the Shower of Gold (1787; National Museum, Stockholm). Unable to find portrait commissions in Paris, he worked in Bordeaux, and, after the beginning of the French revolution, in Madrid and Cadiz.
Wertmüller came to the United States in 1794 and settled in Philadelphia, where he painted a number of portraits, including several of George Washington. He returned to Europe in 1796 to settle his personal and financial affairs and returned to the United States four years later, bringing his collection of his own work. He married Betsey Henderson, granddaughter of Swedish painter Gustavus Hesselius, and in 1802 became an American citizen. He gave up his painting career almost entirely and purchased a farm in Delaware, describing farming life in detail in his "Journal de la Terre situé à Naaman's Creek" (Royal Library of Stockholm; (Scott 1963, 33-173). However, he permitted visitors to see his paintings, especially the Danaë, for which he charged admission. When the painting later went on public view, it shocked many viewers.
Wertmüller's American work is rare. In addition to his Philadelphia portraits, he also painted in New York and Annapolis. Throughout his career he kept a careful account of his paintings in several manuscripts. He died in 1811. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Benisovich, Michel. "The Sale of the Studio of Adolph-Ulrich Wertmüller." The Art Quarterly 16, no. 1 (Spring, 1953): 20-39.
Benisovich, Michel. "Wertmüller et son Livre de Raison intitulé La 'Notte'." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 6th series, 48 (July-August 1956): 35-68.
Benisovich, Michel. "Further Notes on A. U. Wertmüller in the United States and France." The Art Quarterly 26, no. 1 (Spring 1963): 7-30.
Scott, Franklin D. Wertmüller: Artist and Immigrant Farmer. Chicago, 1963.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 312.