National Gallery of Art
Gilbert Stuart

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Thomas Jefferson (The Medallion Portrait), 1805, grisaille of aqueous medium on blue laid paper on canvas, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Thomas Jefferson
(The Medallion Portrait)
, 1805,
grisaille of aqueous medium on paper on canvas,
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts,
Gift of Mrs. T. Jefferson Newbold and family, in memory of Thomas Jefferson Newbold, Class of 1910

Washington, DC (1803-1805)

Stuart stayed in Philadelphia for about nine years, occupied with painting the first president as well as with commissions from Washington’s many admirers for their own portraits. After a quick visit to Washington, DC, in 1802, however, he decided to relocate his studio in the new federal capital. Stuart’s friend, architect Benjamin Latrobe, designed and constructed a two-room building for him north of Pennsylvania Avenue (near Sixth and C Streets, not far from the present site of the National Gallery of Art). In Washington he was "all the rage," in the words of one contemporary. Dozens of sitters––including President Thomas Jefferson, congressmen, foreign diplomats, businessmen, and landowners––were eager to have their likenesses captured and anxious to have them completed before Stuart tired from the demand.

As was the case in Philadelphia, most of his Washington, DC, portraits are small, waist-length canvases. This format allowed him to finish the works quickly while depicting a variety of individual poses and gestures. One of his more unusual portraits is the small, 1805 medallion profile of Thomas Jefferson, done at the request of the president. This monochromatic wash drawing, whose format emulates Roman coin portraiture, depicts Jefferson with the fashionably short haircut that was to replace the older style worn by earlier patriots (including Washington). Those who knew Jefferson considered it to be one of the best likenesses ever taken of him.

Stuart suffered from malaria in the summer of 1804 and again in the spring of 1805, and the illness affected his work. Latrobe pleaded with him, "Let me... intreat you to leave that sink of your health, your Genius, and your interests, Washington... God bless You and give you resolution to start off to a climate more healthy and less tainted with fraud, speculation, marsh miasmata, and the insolence of clerkships." A short time later, Latrobe, who was also Stuart’s landlord, was granted his wish, but perhaps with regret: Stuart skipped out on some of the rent he owed.

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