- Historic Sites
Gilbert Stuart The Man Who Painted Washington
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
How could he help being moved by their color, their renditions of textures, their sophisticated compositions, the virtuosity of their execution? In the back of Stuart’s mind there dawned the unwilling realization that these pictures could, if he absorbed their virtues, enable him to achieve much more effectively his ambition to reveal character through the realistic rendition of faces. Yet he remained stubborn, and the unhappy result was that the young man who in America had been so self-confident could no longer finish a picture.
It took almost two years of failure, poverty, and despair to break Stuart’s obstinacy. Then he did what he could have done earlier; he appealed to the American-born painter Benjamin West, who was one of the most famous and successful artists in England and whose benevolence to his fellow countrymen was well known.
The letter Stuart sent West in 1777 was so abject it could only have been drawn from his proud spirit by the most acute misery. “Pitty me Good Sir,” he wrote, I’ve just arriv’d att the age of 21 an age when most young men have done something worthy of notice & find myself Ignorant without Bussiness or Friends, without the necessarys of life so far that for some time I have been reduc’d to one miserable meal a day & frequently not even that, destitute of the means of acquiring knowledge, my hopes from home Blasted & incapable of returning thither, pitching headlong into misery I have this only hope I pray that it may not be too great to live & learn without being a Burthen, Should Mr West in his abundant kindness think of ought for me I shall esteem it an obligation which shall bind me forever with grattude.
West asked Stuart to call. Quickly recognizing the genius of the wild young man, the mature painter took him into his studio and made him his favorite pupil. And now at last Stuart opened his mind to the floodwaters of contemporary English painting. Almost overnight his style changed.
London then boasted one of the most sophisticated portrait schools in the history of Western art. The leaders were Reynolds and Gainsborough, then both aging. Behind these two masters marched a whole squad of younger men, including West. In this firmament Stuart, now that he was determined to do so, rose like a rocket. In a year or so he had acquired all the necessary technical skills to compete with the greatest British portrait masters. Down subsequent generations some of his pictures have, indeed, been attributed to the most established British painters—particularly Gainsborough. But this requires a certain scholarly myopia, since (as was recognized by his contemporaries) Stuart’s work has its own marked individuality.
True, Stuart had abandoned his former passionate concern with the shape of objects for the surface realism of the British School. He was now rendering the cool sheen of silk and the warm glow of velvet with all the iridescence of the British masters. Yet he did not change his American point of view toward man. He had not accepted the conception that a portrait must convey the impression that the sitter was an admirable member of an accepted social class. Concerned not with rank but with personality, Stuart labored to record an individual, weak or strong, in all his actual idiosyncrasy. He was to tell his pupils: “You must put down the animal you see before you.”
The self-portrait Stuart painted in 1778, after being in West’s studio for a year or so, is a revealing document. We see a brash, self-satisfied young man, a little on the elfin side, with a narrow, pointed face and vaguely shifty eyes. The interesting thing about this picture is the self-understanding it reveals—as if Stuart were conscious of the cankers of his spirit and even a little proud of them.
Stuart’s portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, done in 1784, offended that leader of the British School by showing him as an aging, worldly man, perhaps a little smug, perhaps a little disillusioned. And, indeed, many connoisseurs and sitters were far from sure that they approved of placing a personality so clearly on canvas as it was Stuart’s wont to do. The critic of London’s St. James’s Chronicle remarked: “Mr. Stuart seldom fails of a likeness, but wants freedom of pencil and elegance of taste.” More to the point, a scribe for the London Courant thought Stuart’s portraits “exceedingly fine,” but he could not quite reconcile himself to the fact that the likenesses were not more flattering.
By and large, Stuart’s studio was frequented not by Tories or aristocrats but by Whig politicians and the self-made men who were rising to recreate England as a basically middle-class nation. Even these precursors of a new world would probably have found Stuart’s images too revealing had his style not become so suave. He became particularly famous for his rendition of the texture of faces. “Flesh,” he stated, “is like no other substance under heaven. It has all the gaiety of a silk mercers shop without the gaudiness or glare and all the soberness of old mahogany without its deadness or sadness.”