- Historic Sites
Gilbert Stuart The Man Who Painted Washington
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
Many informed Englishmen were prophesying that Stuart would rise to the leadership of the British portrait school after Reynolds and Gainsborough had died when suddenly the artist vanished from London. Behind his disappearance lay dissipation. Success had come to Stuart when he was still under thirty. Recently he had not known where his next meal was coming from. Now he was one of London’s leading painters. He had lifted his price for a head from five guineas to thirty, and was soon making fifteen hundred pounds a year, the equivalent of well over fifty thousand modern dollars. But he spent money faster than he had made it; the debtors’ prisons that had known him as a ragged lad knew him again as a fine gentleman. At last he was forced to flee his creditors. In the fall of 1787 he turned up in Dublin. Tradition tells us that his creditors caught up with him and lodged him in an Irish prison. However, the local gentry were so pleased at the opportunity to be painted by so accomplished an artist that they flocked to sit for him behind the bars. Soon Stuart, sassier than ever, was ensconced in elegant lodgings.
Stuart’s Irish crony J. D. Herbert, in telling us that Stuart “had all the equalizing spirit of the American,” relates that when Stuart painted the daughter of an eminent Irish bishop, he did not make the likeness flattering enough to suit her. Her complaints annoyed the painter, and he simply stopped working on the portrait. While Herbert was lounging in the studio several days later, a flunky announced that the bishop was below in his carriage and wanted Stuart to come down and talk with him. Herbert rose to go.
“No,” said Stuart. “You must stay and witness a novel scene.” Then he sent down word that he was not used to attending on carriages, but that if the bishop would come up he would speak to him. The servant returned in a minute to report that the bishop’s gout kept him from coming up. Stuart sent the flunky back with the message that he was extremely sorry for two reasons: one, for the bishop’s sufferings; and two, for the fact that he had the rheumatism himself. However, he would try to meet His Grace halfway.
With a wink at Herbert, Stuart slipped off his shoe, tied a silk handkerchief around his foot, and limped exactly halfway down the stairs, where he waited for the bishop, who came limping painfully up. “Well,” Herbert heard the episcopal voice remark, “I have contrived to hobble up, you see, Mr. Stuart. Sorry to see your foot tied up.”
The bishop then complained that the picture of his daughter was “not pleasing.” With Stuart leading the way, the two men limped slowly up the stairs to his studio. Placing the picture on the easel, Stuart began to lay a dark color on the background. The bishop watched him curiously, but when Stuart, continuing the rhythmical sweep of his brush, laid color over the face too, he remonstrated. “Now what are you doing? Are you painting it out?”
“Yes, I am putting Your Grace out of pain, as much as I can. I shall return the half-price, and am sorry I could not please Your Grace.”
When the bishop insisted he only wanted the face altered, not the whole picture rubbed out, Stuart nodded gravely, dipped some tow in turpentine, and removed the color. Then he said: “A dressmaker may alter a dress, a milliner a cap, a tailor a coat, but a painter may give up his art if he attempts to alter to please. It cannot be done.”
The bishop bowed and hobbled away. Stuart attended him to the middle step of the stairs, bowed low, and returned jubilant with victory. He instructed his servant to take the picture to the bishop’s house but not to leave it until he had collected fifteen guineas.
Some of Stuart’s biographers have described him as a gay prankster, a carouser improvident because his animal spirits were too strong for him. However, an unfinished self-portrait made shortly before his departure for Ireland tells a different story. The image is a far cry from the cynicism with which he painted others. The features are pulled tight with the passionate misery of tortured nerves.
Having exhausted the Irish market, Stuart returned to America after an absence of about seventeen years. He arrived in New York late in 1792 or early in 1793. The most expert painter to practice on these shores since John Singleton Copley’s departure in 1774, he was instantly inundated with commissions. William Dunlap, himself an artist, expressed the general opinion of Stuart’s work when he stated: “It appeared to the writer as if he had never seen portraits before, so decidedly was form and mind conveyed to the canvas.”
The pictures Stuart painted during the early years of his return home, first in New York and then in Philadelphia, represent a glorious period of transition. In England he had felt the need to compete with extremely expert, elaborate portrait painters who paid as much attention to costume as to face and embedded their subjects in elegant settings. Although Stuart had depicted the faces with a shrewder realism, he could not travel too far from the accepted mode. Knowing that the critics would eagerly pounce—if they could—on his velvets and laces, he worked at them with a sometimes tense determination.