- Historic Sites
Gilbert Stuart The Man Who Painted Washington
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
As his American years continued—he moved to Boston in 1805—Stuart drifted further and further away from his English practice. The furbelows disappeared from his pictures as he concentrated on the subject of his fundamental fascination: the human face. His typical canvas became, like his best Washingtons, little more than a head against an unparticularized expanse of color selected to bring out the flesh tones. The image was never that of a person relaxing in the privacy of his home. A citizen of the eighteenth century, Stuart sought a public image—what the individual showed to the world. This has inclined the modern viewer to regard his portraits as unrevealing, and hardly to examine them at all as character studies. True, there is in Stuart’s work not a touch of caricature; yet if we study a picture carefully, we discover that Stuart’s revelation of character is profound. Stuart told a pupil that he preferred Vandyke to Reynolds because Vandyke was true to nature. “If a sitter had false eyes, they were put down as false. Reynolds would not. He delighted too much in imaginary beauty.”
From the time Stuart returned to America, his technique became increasingly rapid—impressionistic, almost. He blocked in the face with opaque colors, which he then covered with a swiftly painted layer of transparent or semitransparent hues. When he first attempted this method, he was only partially successful; the overpainting did not blend and seemed to be a superimposed drawing. Soon, however, he achieved amazing effects; his finished pictures have all the spontaneity of a sketch, while the transparency of his hues gives a marvelous feeling of flesh, for flesh is itself transparent.
Stuart was forced to adopt his characteristic later style partly by a physical handicap: the nervous trembling of his hands. His unsteady touch gave atmosphere and vibrancy to his coloring, while he had to concentrate on the significant masses of the face, since he could not, had he wished, have executed meticulous detail. His fellow painter John Neagle tells us: “He deliberated every time before the wellcharged brush went down upon the canvas with an action like cutting into it with a knife. He lifted the brush from the surface at a right angle, carefully avoiding a sliding motion. He always seemed to avoid vexing or tormenting the paint when once laid on, and this accounts partly for the purity and freshness … of his work.” Because of Stuart’s technique his pictures looked best from a short distance. When people examined them closely, he would cry in anger: “Well, sir, does it smell good?”
Stuart’s outrageousness never left him, but all his self-will brought him no happiness. Indeed, he might have been the protagonist of a Sunday school tract, the intemperate man who came to a sad end. Drink, anger, and improvidence overwhelmed him; he became lonely and sad; he was unloved even by his own children. Yet in one respect he fooled the moralists; his great gift remained with him to the last. Until shortly before he died in Boston in 1828, at the age of seventy-two, the old man whose hand trembled so he could hardly hold a brush still turned out major canvases.
With great brilliance and exactitude, Stuart’s portraits summarized the attitude of the emerging United States. Painter to the Federalist aristocracy, he created suave and dignified likenesses of leading citizens—yet he was unswayed by rank or wealth. In this New World portrait gallery each man’s personality, viewed with the level gaze of a scientist, was recorded without fear or favor. Stuart was not a philosopher or a poet or any kind of dreamer; the word “beauty” was not in his vocabulary. He was a practical man creating objects as closely allied to social needs as were medieval cathedrals.
No artist was ever more absorbed than Stuart in the cult of the individual man. He admired not people but persons; not convention but human truth; not class and rank but character. Stuart’s simple likenesses so expressed the aspirations of his own time that he was in that time regarded, without contradiction, as America’s greatest painter.