Gilbert Stuart’s ambition when he left Dublin in 1793 was to paint the first president of the United States – he supposedly declared to a friend: “I expect to make a fortune by Washington.” After the artist traveled to Philadelphia in the late autumn of 1794 with a letter of introduction from Chief Justice John Jay, the president sat for Stuart sometime the following year. Attracting commissions from prominent patrons in the colonies and abroad, Stuart’s portraits of Washington were a success from the start, and two more such sittings would occur over the next several years.
One of four Stuart portraits of George Washington owned by the National Gallery, this 1821 work is derived from Stuart’s second life portrait from 1796 (now jointly owned by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the National Portrait Gallery). Here, Washington is shown looking to the left, wearing a black velvet suit and a white shirt with a ruffle of lace or linen. The work demonstrates Stuart’s extraordinary ability to capture an individual’s likeness, which was based on a gift for assessing each sitter’s personality through conversation and on his close observation. Each portrait reflects Stuart’s knowledge of anatomy and his belief in theories of physiognomy, which hold that a study of the outward body can reveal a person’s character.
Over the course of his career, Gilbert Stuart painted at least 100 portraits of George Washington, most of them also copies of the 1796 painting. Centuries later, Stuart’s portrayal of Washington remains the best-known image of the United States’ first president—as writer and critic John Neal wrote in 1823, “So, Stuart painted him; and though a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it; for, the only idea that we now have of George Washington, is associated with Stuart’s Washington.”
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century, pages 265-266, 268-270, and 273, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-18th-century.pdf
Colonel George Gibbs [1776-1833], "Sunswick Farm," Astoria, New York; his widow, Laura Wolcott Gibbs [1794-1870], New York; sold through (Jacob Hart Lazarus [1822-1891], New York) in 1872 to Thomas Jefferson Coolidge [1831-1920], Boston; his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge III [1893-1959], Boston; his son, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge IV, Boston; sold 1979 to NGA.
- American Academy of the Fine Arts, New York, 1832, no. 10
- Exhibition of Select Paintings, by Modern Artists, principally American, and living, under the Direction of a Committee of Amateurs, Stuyvesant Institute, New York, 1838, no. 195
- Banquet held at City Hall, New York, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Washington's inauguration, 1839
- The Washington Exhibition in aid of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, at the American Art-Union Gallery, New York, 1853, no. 47
- First Annual Exhibition of the Washington Art Association, Washington, D.C., 1857, no. 98
- Third Annual Exhibition at the Gallery of the Fine Art Institute, Artists' Fund Society, New York, 1862, no. 178
- Revolutionary Relics Exhibited at No. 56, Beacon Street, Ladies' Centennial Commission, Boston, 1875, no. 109
- Exhibition of Portraits Painted by Gilbert Stuart, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1880, no. 204
- Loan Exhibition of Early American Portraits, The Boston Art Club, Massachusetts, 1911, no. 42
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1921, 1926-1931, 1936-1943, 1946-1959 (on loan)
- Loan Exhibition of Early American Furniture and the Decorative Crafts for the Benefit of Free Hospital for Women, Brookline, Mass., Park Square Building, Boston, 1925, no. 341
- Gilbert Stuart Memorial Exhibition, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1928, no. 77
- George Washington Bicentennial Historical Loan Exhibition of Portraits of George Washington and his Associates, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 1932, no. 29
- The Thomas Jefferson Bicentennial Exhibition: 1743-1943, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1943, no. 34
- Gilbert Stuart: Painter of Presidents, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, 1975-1976, no cat.
- Zeichen der Freiheit: Das Bild der Republik in der Kunst des 16. bis 20. Jahrhunderts [Emblems of Liberty: The Image of the Republic in the Art of the 16th to the 20th Century], Kunstmuseum, Bern, Switzerland, 1991, no. 324a, repro.
- Mason, George C. The Life and Works of Gilbert Stuart. New York, 1879: 111-112.
- "Portraits Painted by Stuart...taken from Mason's Life and Works of Gilbert Stuart." In Exhibition of Portraits Painted by Gilbert Stuart. Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1880: 26.
- Bowen, Clarence W., ed. The History of the Centennial Celebration of the Inauguration of George Washington. New York, 1892: 98, repro. opp. 150, 484, 542, no. 29.
- Fielding 1923, 175, no. 54.
- Park 1926, 874, no. 55, repro.
- Morgan & Fielding 1931, 285, no. 54.
- Swan, Mabel Munson. "The 'American Kings'." Antiques 19, no. 4 (April 1931): 278-281, repro.
- Eisen 1932, 1:171.
- Gibbs, George. The Gibbs Family of Rhode Island and Some Related Families. New York: 148-149.
- Swan, Mabel Munson. The Athenaeum Gallery, 1827-1873. Boston, 1940: 69.
- Gustafson, Eleanor H. "Museum Accessions." Antiques 115, no. 5 (May 1979): 976-978, color repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 237, repro.
- Brown, J. Carter. "Five Gilbert Stuart Portraits At The National Gallery of Art Link Charlottesville To New England--The Coolidge Connection." The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Virginia (23 September 1980): 10-11.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 8, repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 10, repro.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 355, repro.
- Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 265-266, 268-270, 273, color repro. 271.
- Barratt, Carrie Rebora, and Ellen G. Miles. Gilbert Stuart. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (for the National Portrait Gallery). New York, New Haven, and London, 2004: 162, 313, fig. 103.