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Artists in 60 Seconds: Gilbert Stuart

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George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

George Washington (a.k.a.: the "Athenaeum Head;" ca. 1798; Stuart copy of [unifnished] 1796 original), Oil on canvas; U.S. Senate Building, Cat. no. 31.00003.000

Image courtesy U.S. Senate Art Collection

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

Neo-Classicism

Date and Place of Birth:

December 3, 1755, Saunderstown, Rhode Island

Stuart was born in the water-powered snuff mill that his father operated.

Life:

Gilbert Stuart showed such early promise as an artist that he traveled, with artist Cosmo Alexander, to learn his craft in England and Scotland in 1769. Unfortunately, Alexander died during their tour, and it was up to a 15 year-old Gilbert to work his way back to the U.S. Undaunted, he executed small commissions in his native Newport until he could travel back to England in 1775. This journey proved more successful than the first, and Stuart entered the studio of painter Benjamin West.

Making the most of his time in London, he learned quickly, garnered an important clientele and was able to exhibit at the Royal Academy by 1787. He also married and led a cheerfully lavish lifestyle. This last proved disastrous, as Stuart had absolutely no head for finances. He moved to Dublin in 1787 (one step ahead of an English debtors' prison) and spent the next five years painting Earls and Lords in Ireland. In 1793, once again fleeing creditors, he returned to America for the final time.

This last phase of his career was so successful that Stuart had more work than he could handle. He'd developed his own distinctive style (emulated by the next generation of painters) that led to the title, "Father of American Portraiture." After living in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., he settled in Boston in 1805, and spent the next 24 years painting Presidents, First Ladies, important figures in early American history and - of course - wealthy people from all along the Eastern seaboard.

Though he is best known today for his portraits of George Washington, Stuart is credited with well over 1,000 bust-, three-quarter- and full-length works. Many of these were unfinished and attribution is somewhat problematic at times, as he almost never signed his work. And, despite these many, hefty commissions, he never did develop any business sense. Ironically, the artist whose work is seen millions of times each day (on the U.S. $1 bill) died broke.

Important Works:

  • The Skater ("Portrait of William Grant"), 1782
  • George Washington (the "Vaughan" portrait), 1795
  • George Washington (the "Lansdowne" portrait), 1795
  • George Washington (the "Athenaeum" portrait), 1796
  • Abigail Smith Adams, 1800-15 (Yes. It took Stuart 15 years to complete this painting.)

Date and Place of Death:

July 9, 1828, Boston, Massachusetts

Quotes From Gilbert Stuart:

  • "I copy the works of God, and leave clothes to tailors and mantua-makers."

  • "What a business is this of a portrait painter! You bring him a potato and expect he will paint you a peach."

  • "When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face." - speaking of George Washington

Sources and Further Reading

  • Barratt, Carrie Rebora; Miles, Ellen G. Gilbert Stuart.
    New Haven : Yale University Press, 2004.
    Published in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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  • Christman, Margaret C. S. "Stuart, Gilbert"
    Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 1 July 2005.

  • Evans, Dorinda. The Genius of Gilbert Stuart.
    New Haven : Yale University Press, 1999.

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  • McLanathan, Richard . Gilbert Stuart: Father of American Portraiture.
    New York : Harry N. Abrams, 1986.

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  • Mount, Charles Merrill. Gilbert Stuart: A Biography
    New York : W. W. Norton, 1964.

  • Rodgers, David . "Stuart, Gilbert"
    The Oxford Companion to Western Art.
    Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford University Press, 2001.
    Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 1 July 2005.

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