Portrait of Gilbert Stuart by Sarah Goodridge, 1825
|Born||Gilbert Charles Stewart
December 3, 1755
Saunderstown, Rhode Island Colony, British America
|Died||July 9, 1828
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Notable work||George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait) (1796)
George Washington (Lansdowne portrait) (1796)
George Washington (Vaughan Portrait) (1795)
The Skater (1782)
Catherine Brass Yates (1794)
John Jay (1794)
John Adams (1824)
Gilbert Charles Stuart (born Stewart; December 3, 1755 - July 9, 1828) was an American painter from Rhode Island who is widely considered one of America's foremost portraitists. His best known work is the unfinished portrait of George Washington that is sometimes referred to as The Athenaeum, begun in 1796. Stuart retained the portrait and used it to paint 130 copies which he sold for $100 each. The image of George Washington featured in the painting has appeared on the United States one-dollar bill for more than a century and on various U.S. postage stamps of the 19th century and early 20th century.
Stuart produced portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six Presidents. His work can be found today at art museums throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Frick Collection in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Portrait Gallery, London, Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Gilbert Stuart was born on December 3, 1755 in Saunderstown, a village of North Kingstown in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, and he was baptized at Old Narragansett Church on April 11, 1756. He was the third child of Gilbert Stewart, a Scottish immigrant employed in the snuff-making industry, and Elizabeth Anthony Stewart, a member of a prominent land-owning family from Middletown, Rhode Island. Stuart's father owned the first snuff mill in America, which was located in the basement of the family homestead.
Stuart moved to Newport, Rhode Island at the age of six, where his father pursued work in the merchant field. In Newport, he first began to show great promise as a painter. In 1770, he made the acquaintance of Scottish artist Cosmo Alexander, a visitor to the colonies who made portraits of local patrons and who became a tutor to Stuart. Under the guidance of Alexander, Stuart painted the famous portrait Dr. Hunter's Spaniels when he was 14; it hangs today in the Hunter House Mansion in Newport.
In 1771, Stuart moved to Scotland with Alexander to finish his studies; however, Alexander died in Edinburgh one year later. Stuart tried to maintain a living and pursue his painting career, but to no avail, so he returned to Newport in 1773.
Stuart's prospects as a portraitist were jeopardized by the onset of the American Revolution and its social disruptions. He departed for England in 1775 following the example set by John Singleton Copley. He was unsuccessful at first in pursuit of his vocation, but he then became a protégé of Benjamin West with whom he studied for the next six years. The relationship was beneficial, with Stuart exhibiting at the Royal Academy as early as 1777.
By 1782, Stuart had met with success, largely due to acclaim for The Skater, a portrait of William Grant. It was Stuart's first full-length portrait and, according to art historian Margaret C. S. Christman, it "belied the prevailing opinion that Stuart 'made a tolerable likeness of a face, but as to the figure, he could not get below the fifth button'". Stuart said that he was "suddenly lifted into fame by a single picture".
At one point, the prices for his pictures were exceeded only by those of renowned English artists Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Despite his many commissions, however, he was habitually neglectful of finances and was in danger of being sent to debtors' prison. In 1787, he fled to Dublin, Ireland where he painted and accumulated debt with equal vigor.
Stuart ended his 18-year stay in Britain and Ireland in 1793, leaving behind numerous unfinished paintings. He returned to the United States and settled briefly in New York City. In 1795, he moved to Germantown, Philadelphia where he opened a studio, and it was here that he gained a foothold in the art world and lasting fame with pictures of many important Americans.
Stuart painted George Washington in a series of iconic portraits, each of them leading to a demand for copies and keeping him busy and highly paid for years. The most famous and celebrated of these likenesses is known as The Athenaeum and is portrayed on the United States one-dollar bill. Stuart and his daughters painted a total of 130 reproductions of The Athenaeum. However, he never completed the original version; after finishing Washington's face, he kept the original version to make the copies. He sold up to 70 of his reproductions for a price of $100 each, but the original portrait was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1828. The painting was jointly purchased by the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1980, and is generally on display in the National Portrait Gallery.
Another celebrated image of Washington is the Lansdowne portrait, a large portrait with one version hanging in the East Room of the White House. This painting was saved during the burning of Washington by British troops in the War of 1812 through the intervention of First Lady Dolley Madison and Paul Jennings, one of President James Madison's slaves. Four versions of the portrait are attributed to Stuart, and additional copies were painted by other artists for display in U.S. government buildings. In 1803, Stuart opened a studio in Washington, D. C.
Stuart moved to Devonshire Street in Boston in 1805, continuing in both critical acclaim and financial troubles. He exhibited works locally at Doggett's Repository and Julien Hall. He was sought out for advice by other artists, such as John Trumbull, Thomas Sully, Washington Allston, and John Vanderlyn.
Stuart married Charlotte Coates about September 1786, who was 13 years his junior and "exceedingly pretty". They had 12 children, five of whom died by 1815 and two others died while they were young. Their daughter Jane (1812-1888) was also a painter. She sold many of his paintings and her replicas of them from her studios in Boston and Newport, Rhode Island. In 2011, she was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
In 1824, he suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed, but he still continued to paint for two years until his death in Boston on July 9, 1828 at 72. He was buried in the Old South Burial Ground of the Boston Common.
Stuart left his family deeply in debt, and his wife and daughters were unable to purchase a grave site. He was, therefore, buried in an unmarked grave which was purchased cheaply from Benjamin Howland, a local carpenter. His family recovered from their financial troubles 10 years later, and they planned to move his body to a family cemetery in Newport. However, they could not remember the exact location of his body, and it was never moved. There is a monument for Stuart, his wife, and their children at the Common Burying Ground in Newport.
The Boston Athenæum held a benefit exhibition of Stuart's works in August 1828 in an effort to provide financial aid for his family. More than 250 portraits were lent for this critically acclaimed and well-subscribed exhibition. This also marked the first public showing of his unfinished 1796 Athenæum Head portrait of Washington.
By the end of his career, Gilbert Stuart had painted the likenesses of more than 1,000 American political and social figures. He was praised for the vitality and naturalness of his portraits, and his subjects found his company agreeable. John Adams said:
Speaking generally, no penance is like having one's picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation.
Stuart was known for working without the aid of sketches, beginning directly upon the canvas, which was very unusual for the time period. His approach is suggested by the advice which he gave to his pupil Matthew Harris Jouett: "Never be sparing of colour, load your pictures, but keep your colours as separate as you can. No blending, tis destruction to clear & bea[u]tiful effect."
John Henri Isaac Browere created a life mask of Stuart around 1825. In 1940, the U.S. Post Office issued a series of postage stamps called the "Famous Americans Series" commemorating famous artists, authors, inventors, scientists, poets, educators, and musicians. Gilbert Stuart is found on the 1 cent issue in the artists category, along with James McNeil Whistler, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and Frederic Remington.
Today, Stuart's birthplace in Saunderstown, Rhode Island is open to the public as the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum. The museum consists of the original house where he was born, with copies of his paintings hanging throughout the house. The museum opened in 1930.
This is a partial list of portraits painted by Stuart.
American artist Benjamin West, 1783-84
English artist Joshua Reynolds, 1784
American artist John Singleton Copley, c. 1784
American artist John Trumbull, c. 1818
William Bayard, 1794, Princeton University Art Museum
Peter Gansevoort, 1794
George Washington At Dorchester Heights, 1806, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
George Calvert, politician and planter, 1804
Henry Rice, Boston merchant and Massachusetts state legislator, c. 1815
John Jones of Frankley held at the Birmingham Museum of Art
Gilbert Stuart's paintings of Washington, Jefferson and others have been served as models for the engravings found on dozens of U.S. Postage stamps released over the years. Washington's image from the famous Washington portrait, The Athenaeum, is probably the most noted example of Stuart's work on U.S. Postage.