- Historic Sites
Gilbert Stuart The Man Who Painted Washington
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
The face is familiar. Every American has scanned it a thousand times; it passes from hand to hand in millions of ordinary business transactions every day of the year. It is Gilbert Stuart’s image of George Washington, and it adorns, of course, the United States dollar bill. Yet not one American in a hundred could tell you anything of the artist whose perception of the Father of His Country would eventually become the most readily recognized portrait ever made of any famous person. This is too bad, for Stuart lived a tempestuous life, here and abroad, that makes an intriguing human story—and one that reveals some curious facts about just how that image of Washington came to look the way it does. Here a well-known biographer of Washington tells the story.
When he was in England, Gilbert Stuart used to tell inquirers that he had been born “six miles from Pottawoone and ten miles from Pappasquash and about four miles from Conanicut and not far from the spot where the famous battle with the war-like Pequots was fought.” His British hearers assumed that he had been born in India, but readers of A MERICAN H ERITAGE will undoubtedly recognize that he came from the neighborhood of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.
Stuart’s father, whose name was also Gilbert, had been brought from Scotland to erect what was called the first “engine for the manufacture of snuff” in New England. The future painter was born on December 3, 1755, and only five years later is supposed to have drawn on the earth with a stick a good likeness of a neighbor. Family tradition also records a public hanging that indirectly demonstrated his early powers of observation. The hangman, who had hidden his identity with a sheet draped from head to ankle, fooled everyone but the babe on Mrs. Stuart’s shoulder. Gilbert reported who it was. “I knew him,” the innocent lisped, “by his sues.”
When the boy was six, his father became convinced there was no money in snuff making; he abandoned his mill and moved to Newport. The painter was later to describe his family’s house as “a hovel on Bannister’s wharf.” Be that as it may, Stuart was rarely at home; he spent his time out on the streets leading a gang of urchins in outrageous pranks. The Episcopalian charity school to which he was sent served him only as a reservoir for companions he could lead astray. School books were forgotten while he frolicked with Arthur Browne, later a famous English attorney, and Benjamin Waterhouse, who was to introduce vaccination into the United States. Dr. Waterhouse remembered that Gilbert was “a very capable, selfwilled boy, who, perhaps on that account, was indulged in everything, being an only son, handsome and forward, and habituated at home to have his own way in everything, with little or no control from the easy, good-natured father.” Yet Stuart was in his own way preparing himself for his future career. There were a few indifferent copies of old masters in Newport for him to see, and these inspired the drawings he made before he was well in his teens. A piece of chalk or a lump of clay served him as a pencil, and fences, barn doors, or the tailboards of wagons took the place of canvases. His technique was childish, merely the sketching of an outline, but the result impressed his neighbors.
Stuart soon made the acquaintance of Samuel King, a local artisan painter of small skill, but King shrank into insignificance when an elegant Scot turned up in Newport. Cosmo Alexander admitted in the parlors of the Scottish colony of the provincial city that he was an expert painter, that he had studied in Italy and was a member of the London Society of Artists. He pretended to be too much of a gentleman to do more than sketch for his own amusement, yet he permitted himself to be persuaded to paint portraits at a fee. Although actually no more than an obscure and inferior craftsman in the English face-painting tradition that preceded the era of Reynolds, he was the most expert artist who had practiced in Newport for years. He soon was doing a rushing business.
To Stuart’s delight, when he was still only fourteen or fifteen Alexander took him on as an apprentice. The boy accompanied his master on a painting tour through the South, and then fate presented what seemed like a marvelous boon: Alexander took him to Scotland, carrying him that much closer to the centers of Old World art. For a while the boy prospered in Glasgow and Edinburgh, following in the wake of his enterprising master. But on August 25, 1772, Alexander died. As he felt himself failing, he begged one of his friends to take care of Stuart; but this gentleman was either too poor or too callous to help the sixteen-year-old apprentice. Stuart found himself alone in a strange city.