Gilbert Stuart Paints the First Five Presidents
The Gibbs-Coolidge Set of the First Five Presidents
The Gibbs-Coolidge paintings are the only surviving complete set of portraits depicting the first five presidents of the United States. Commissioned by Colonel George Gibbs of Rhode Island, the group was painted in Boston during the last phase of Gilbert Stuart's career. In 1872, Colonel Gibbs’ heirs sold the paintings to Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, and the set descended through subsequent generations of the Coolidge family. The suite retains its original Federal frames.
Stuart did paint another set of the first five presidents. However, while that group was on loan to the Capitol in 1851, three of the portraits burned during a fire in the congressional library. Engraved prints of that set were enormously popular during the Federal period, earning the nickname "The American Kings."
This version is among the best of the seventy-two copies Stuart made of his Athenaeum format for the first president. Painted from life in April 1796, the unfinished original is now shared at three-year intervals between the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington.
This likeness was painted when the second president was in his eighties. However, Stuart copied it from a much earlier National Gallery picture, the portrait of Adams he began from life studies in 1800.
Stuart painted the third president from life three times during his administration of 1801 to 1809. This Gibbs-Coolidge rendition was most likely based on other pictures Stuart had painted from life that where either in his possession or accessible to him.
Stuart first portrayed James Madison when he was Jefferson's secretary of state. The Gibbs-Coolidge likeness was most likely based on other pictures Stuart had painted from life that where either in his possession or accessible to him. The deep green curtain accents the color of Madison's eyes.
Monroe's likeness, a replica of one done from life in 1817, is the only picture in the Gibbs-Coolidge set with a pale background. Stuart very rarely used light settings for his portrayals of men. Since James Monroe was the last of the first five presidents, serving from 1817 to 1825, this glowing sky might symbolize the Republic's future.