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Gilbert Stuart Paints the First Five Presidents
Shown from the chest up, a cleanshaven, middle-aged man with pale skin and silvery gray hair, wearing a white, ruffled shirt under a velvety black, high-necked jacket, looks out at us in this vertical portrait painting. His body is angled to our left, and he turns his face slightly to look at us with gray eyes under slightly arched eyebrows. He has a long nose and his thin lips are closed in a straight line. Shadows define slightly sagging jowls along his jawline and down his neck. His light gray hair is pulled back from his forehead and swells in bushy curls over his ears. Part of a black ribbon seen beyond his shoulder ties his hair back. Light illuminates the person from our left and creates a golden glow on the light brown background behind him.

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."

George Washington, c. 1821, oil on wood, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Coolidge IV in memory of his great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge II, and his father, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge III, 1979.5.1

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Shown from the chest up, a cleanshaven, middle-aged man with pale skin and silvery gray hair, wearing a white, ruffled shirt under a velvety black, high-necked jacket, looks out at us in this vertical portrait painting. His body is angled to our left, and he turns his face slightly to look at us with gray eyes under slightly arched eyebrows. He has a long nose and his thin lips are closed in a straight line. Shadows define slightly sagging jowls along his jawline and down his neck. His light gray hair is pulled back from his forehead and swells in bushy curls over his ears. Part of a black ribbon seen beyond his shoulder ties his hair back. Light illuminates the person from our left and creates a golden glow on the light brown background behind him.

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.

George Washington, c. 1821, oil on wood, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Coolidge IV in memory of his great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge II, and his father, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge III, 1979.5.1

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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.

John Adams, c. 1821, oil on wood, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1979.4.1

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Shown from the chest up, a clean shaven, middle-aged man with pale, rosy skin and curly, pewter-gray hair, looks at or toward us against a caramel-brown background in this vertical portrait painting. His body is angled to our left, and he turns his face slightly to look our way with honey-brown eyes under straight, faint eyebrows. He has a long, prominent nose, and his pink lips are closed in a straight line. His gray hair is parted in the middle, curls around his face, and down the back of his neck. He wears a bright white, high-necked, ruffled shirt under a velvety black jacket. Light illuminating the man from our left creates a golden glow on the light brown background behind him.

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.

Thomas Jefferson, c. 1821, oil on wood, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Coolidge IV in memory of his great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge II, and his father, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge III, 1986.71.1

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Shown from the chest up, a cleanshaven man with pale, rosy skin and curled white hair looks off to our right against a dark, olive-green curtain in the background of this vertical portrait painting. His shoulders are angled slightly to our right, and he looks into the distance with blue eyes. His right brow, to our left, is arched, and his eyes are deeply set. His flushed cheeks and jowls sag a bit around his closed mouth, and there are lines under his eyes. His white gray hair seems to be pulled back from his forehead and swells in bushy curls over his ears. Part of a black ribbon seen beyond his shoulder may tie his hair back. He wears a bright white, high-necked, ruffled shirt under a black jacket. Light illuminates the man and the green curtain from our left.

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.

James Madison, c. 1821, oil on wood, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1979.4.2

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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.

 

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James Monroe, c. 1817, oil on wood, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1979.4.3

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