- Historic Sites
Gilbert Stuart The Man Who Painted Washington
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
But back in his homeland he needed to fear no rivals. In those first years he continued to produce the elaborate images of his English practice, but now what had been strain was play. With what light-handed virtuosity he brushed in laces or found a golden highlight on the head of a silver cane!
Stuart, who had been adequately deferential in England and only occasionally outrageous in Ireland, now gave full rein to his determination to be master in his own painting room and to be, as an artist, condescended to by no one. After Washington’s Secretary of War, General Henry Knox, had tried to pull rank on the artist, Stuart used the general’s portrait as a door for his pigsty.
Stuart resented being asked to make ugly women handsome. An important gentleman who had improved himself by marrying a rich and homely widow objected that Stuart’s likeness revealed her as plain. Said Stuart: “What a damned business is this of a portrait painter. You bring him a potato and expect he will paint a peach.”
Benjamin Trott, the miniature painter, one day found Stuart in a great fury. “That picture,” he shouted, “has just been returned to me, with the grievous complaint that the muslin of the cravat is too coarse! Now, sir, I am determined to buy a piece of the finest texture, have it glued on the part that offends their exquisite judgement, and send it back.” Once he painted a beautiful woman who was a great talker. When the picture was almost done, she looked at it and exclaimed: “Why, Mr. Stuart, you have painted me with my mouth open.” “Madam, your mouth is always open,” the painter replied, and refused to complete the picture.
Napoleon’s brother, Jerome Bonaparte, had married a Baltimore belle; he sat for Stuart with his nose in the air. Years later the painter Thomas Sully accidentally stepped on a canvas tossed onto the floor of Stuart’s lumber room. It was Bonaparte’s portrait. “You needn’t mind,” said Stuart. “It’s only a damned French barber.” “Stuart,” Sully continues, “had a beautiful picture of Jerome’s beautiful wife, which he refused to give up, threatening that if he was bothered any more about it, he would put rings through the nose and send it to any tavern keeper who would hang it up. He would have done it too,” Sully adds, “for he was not a man to flinch from anything of that kind.”
The painter of suave, aristocratic portraits had become a rebel, a furious middle-aged man at war with the world. Such was the artist who in 1795 resolved to do what was for his temperament a strange task; to paint a portrait of Washington that would impress future generations of Americans with the greatness of the founder of their country.
Now that the most famous artist in America was painting the hero and ruler of the nation, something noble seemed called for, a rhetorical portrait full of symbols indicating military glory and temporal power. Instead Stuart placed on a small canvas, against a simple background, a soberly and quietly painted face. The painter completed the composition—the so-called Vaughan portrait—with a plain ruffle and a torso that did no more than give the head position. Nothing exterior indicated that this was a great man; if we are impressed it is by the character shown.
Although Stuart’s first portrait of Washington was generally admired, the artist himself was not satisfied. There also was a demand for a likeness more suitable to the prestige of the subject. Always spending money faster than it came in, Stuart could not refuse so profitable a commission. In 1796 he painted the so-called Lansdowne portrait, in which Washington, at full length, is surrounded by a conglomeration of noble symbols. Since Stuart had revolted against this kind of picture all his life, he became annoyed with his elaborate composition and then tangled in it. Furthermore, his fundamental realism continually shattered the heroic mood; he showed Washington’s aging body as ungainly, and his false teeth as disfiguring, which they were. Amazingly enough, the result pleased the Federalist tycoons and their ladies, but Stuart knew it was a failure. This did not prevent him from making numerous copies to order, however.
Given a third chance, Stuart created the Athenaeum portrait, which shows only Washington’s features, since the painter never finished the body or the background. He considered such matters secondary—the important thing was the personality. Yet for commercial reasons Stuart had attempted a task for which he was not temperamentally suited: he had tried to make a votive canvas before which a multitude would fall in worship. It does not rank with his best work, but from the start the public took this likeness to their hearts. It is the image of Washington that has come down through the generations, assisted by millions of engravings on stamps and on dollar bills. (On the dollar bill currently in circulation, incidentally, the image is a kind of amalgamation of this portrait and the Vaughan portrait.) Stuart made some seventy copies of his Athenaeum head—some admirable enough, many others careless daubs that have damaged his reputation.