- Historic Sites
Gilbert Stuart The Man Who Painted Washington
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
He had no means of livelihood except his very inexpert brush. He signed himself “Charles Stuart” in an effort to appeal to Scottish patriotism, and he does seem to have secured a commission or two; but probably he was paid very little. Finally he became completely destitute; he had no money to go home with and nothing to eat if he stayed. As a last desperate expedient he sailed before the mast on a collier bound for Nova Scotia. His friend Waterhouse wrote: “What his treatment was I never could learn. … Suffice it to say, that it was such as neither Gilbert Stuart, father, or son, ever thought proper to mention.”
Now that Stuart could boast of foreign study, he had no difficulty securing portrait commissions. What is interesting is that his work showed remarkably little influence from his foreign experience. He had to a large extent refused to accept the teachings of his master, Cosmo Alexander.
Alexander was a decorative workman, if a weak one. Seeking such graceful poses as a lady fingering a harpsichord, he practiced a sugary sort of realism. People are shown as they might have been in life, but more elegant, prettier. Although his figures were visualized with no vitality of imagination, the technique is smooth enough to hide their emptiness from a casual viewer.
Stuart sensed that the work of his master was trivial; it glossed over the truth that his own eyes saw. Yet he was not sure where the artificiality lay. Since no intellectual divining rod told him where to dig for verity, he followed his instincts. He tried experiments, and it is amazing how often these experiments foreshadowed the conclusions of his later years.
In his portrait of Mrs. John Bannister and her child, painted about 1774, Stuart planned the colors, as he was to do all his life, to emphasize the flesh tones. He also revealed his lifelong fascination with faces and his indifference to figures and costumes. Torsos are shrunken and flat, but Stuart tried desperately to understand the shapes of the enlarged heads, to give them weight and three-dimensional form. Yet Mrs. Bannister’s face is a design grounded on the repetition of shapes. Her oval mass of hair complements the oval of her head. The top of her coiffure, her hairline, eyebrows, and upper eyelids all repeat a single arc. The less sharp curves at the bottom of her eyes are echoed in her little smile. Stuart has, indeed, retreated to the technical devices of the naive workman.
On the other hand, his Francis Malbone and His Brother Saunders , painted at about the same time, has an air of sophisticated realism, and shows superlative promise. The two boys sit at their studies in completely natural poses. On the table between them is an ordinary inkstand rendered with the passionate fidelity of a minor Dutch artist. The picture does not seem to be a flat canvas cunningly marked to give a pretense of depth, but rather an actual cube of space. The eye is almost able to travel around the backs of the heads, to feel shapes and distances. Any art student could point out a dozen conventional mistakes of drawing, perspective, and design; but this painting might well make an intelligent student despair of his professor’s formulas. Reality seems not to be drawn here, but to be directly communicated.
How far Stuart, if left alone, would have carried his self-taught style it is impossible to say. When the Revolution brought to an end nearly all business for painters, he fled to England. He saw no reason why Londoners should not admire and buy the type of portrait that had made him a sensation at Newport. He tried to set up as a professional. At first he suffered from lack of contacts in the foreign city, but soon an American friend secured him commissions. He even started a fulllength portrait of the celebrated Dr. John Coakley Lettsom for exhibition at the Royal Academy, but this picture, like most of the others, remained uncompleted. The artist took to heavy drinking and let his work go. He became more familiar with the interiors of debtors’ prisons than the chaste halls of the Royal Academy, and his friend Waterhouse frequently had to bail him out.
The trouble seems to have been the brash primitive’s reaction to visiting English collections of art. He had allowed his eyes to rest on old masters and the work of truly accomplished contemporary portraitists. This had been shattering. His experience with Alexander—and also his inborn stubbornness—had convinced him that he had nothing to learn from outside himself, from European art. But the paintings he now saw were in an altogether different class from anything he had previously known.