Gilbert Stuart was the preeminent portraitist in Federal America. He combined a talent for recording likeness with an ability to interpret a sitter's personality or character in the choice of pose, color and style of clothing, and setting. He introduced to America the loose, brushy style used by many of the leading artists of late eighteenth century London. He recorded likenesses of lawyers, politicians, diplomats, native Americans, their wives and children. His sitters included many prominent Americans, among them the first five presidents, their advisors, families, and admirers. He is known especially for his numerous portraits of George Washington.
Born in 1755 in North Kingston, Rhode Island, Stuart was baptized with his name spelled "Stewart". His father, an immigrant Scot, built and operated a snuff mill that may have led to the artist's addiction to snuff. He grew up in the trading city of Newport, where itinerant Scottish portraitist Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772) gave him his earliest training in painting. He accompanied Alexander to Scotland in 1771, returning home at the older artist's death. Three years later in 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, he went to London, where he worked for five years (1777-1782) as assistant to the Anglo-American painter Benjamin West. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1777 to 1785, using the name Gilbert Charles Stuart the first year. The success of The Skater (NGA 1950.18.1), painted in 1782, enabled him to establish his own business as a portrait painter. In 1786 Stuart married Charlotte Coates, and the following year they went to Dublin, where Stuart painted portraits of the Protestant ruling minority for over five years.
Stuart returned to the United States in 1793, planning to paint a portrait of George Washington that would establish his reputation in America. After about a year in New York City, he went to Philadelphia, the capital of the United States, with a letter of introduction to Washington from John Jay. He painted the president in the winter or early spring of 1795. He was not satisfied with his first life portrait of Washington, but others were. Martha Washington commissioned a second and Mrs. William Bingham commissioned two full-lengths. His success led immediately to many other commissions. His sitters were politically prominent and wealthy, from the merchant and landed classes. After Washington, D.C. became the new national capital, Stuart moved there in December of 1803, and this group continued as his patrons. There he painted the Madisons, Jefferson, the Thorntons, and others from Jefferson's administration.
In the summer of 1805 Stuart settled in Boston. In his Roxbury studio he continued to paint politically and socially prominent sitters and, on request, to make replicas of his second "Athenaeum" portrait of George Washington. Throughout his life younger artists, including John Trumbull, Thomas Sully, Rembrandt Peale, and John Vanderlyn, sought his advice and imitated his work. Among his students were his children Charles Gilbert (1787-1813) and Jane (1812-1888). One indication of Stuart's popularity is the number of portraits he painted, over a thousand during his long career, excluding copies of the portraits of Washington. Another indication is the number of copies of his work that other artists made. His sitters indicated their fascination for his talent and personality by recording lengthy anecdotes and descriptions of their sittings, producing an unusally rich written record about an American portraitist. Stuart died in Boston in 1828. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
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DeLorme, Eleanor Pearson. "Gilbert Stuart; Portrait of an Artist." Winterthur Portfolio 14, no. 4 (Winter 1979): 339-360.
Evans, Dorinda. Benjamin West and His American Students. Exh. cat. National Portrait Gallery, Washington; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Washington, 1980: 52-59.
McLanathan, Richard. Gilbert Stuart. New York, 1986.
Crean, Hugh R. Gilbert Stuart and the Politics of Fine Arts Patronage in Ireland, 1787-1793: A Social and Cultural Study. Ann Arbor, MI, 1990.
Evans, Dorinda. "Survival and Transformation: The Colonial Portrait in the Federal Era." In The Portrait in Eighteenth-Century America. Edited by Ellen G. Miles. Newark and London, 1993: 123-137.
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 160-162.