National Gallery of Art
Gilbert Stuart

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John Jay, 1794, oil canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington
John Jay,
c. 1794, oil on canvas,
Gift (Partial and Promised) of the Jay Family

New York (1793-1794)

Rather than heading directly to Philadelphia, the nation’s capital from 1790 to 1800, Stuart went first to New York, a smaller cosmopolitan city nearly devoid of fine portraitists. Stuart had few contacts in New York, but they proved significant enough to initiate demand for his work. Chief Justice John Jay, whose earlier portraits he had left unfinished in London, sat again and introduced him to prospective patrons. Other clients included Spanish envoy Josef de Jaudenes y Nebot and his sixteen-year-old American bride Matilda Stoughton, whose portraits Stuart painted about the time of their marriage. Señora de Jaudenes is elaborately dressed in a billowing gown decorated with jewels and a headdress of ostrich feathers, a costume that suggests the height of her husband’s political and social ambitions.

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Catherine Brass Yates, 1793–1794, oil canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Catherine Brass Yates, 1793–1794,
oil on canvas,
National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Andrew W. Mellon Collection

Stuart noted, "In England my efforts were compared with those of Van Dyck, Titian, and other great painters––but here! They compare them with the works of the Almighty!" At times his American clientele allowed him an even greater candor in portrayal than was encouraged in Great Britain. For example, the formidable Catherine Brass Yates, wife of New York merchant Richard Yates, epitomizes restraint and propriety. Every detail in this brilliant painting is instrumental to the entire effect, from the silvery sheen of Mrs. Yates’ neatly fitted attire to the precision of her nimble fingers pulling at the taut line of thread. Stuart mixed these particulars with an unvarnished study of facial features, rendering the slightly crooked line of Mrs. Yates’ prominent nose, her primly closed mouth, the thick, arched line of her eyebrow, and her cool, unrelenting gaze. The result is one of his most compelling and unified efforts at conveying character.

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