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Gilbert Stuart, the Man Who Painted Washington

July 2024
18min read

Painter to the Federalist aristocracy, Stuart created likenesses of leading citizens with great brilliance and exactitude.

The face is familiar. Every American has scanned it a thousand times; it passes from hand to hand in millions of ordinary business transactions every day of the year. It is Gilbert Stuart’s image of George Washington, and it adorns, of course, the United States dollar bill. Yet not one American in a hundred could tell you anything of the artist whose perception of the Father of His Country would eventually become the most readily recognized portrait ever made of any famous person. This is too bad, for Stuart lived a tempestuous life, here and abroad, that makes an intriguing human story—and one that reveals some curious facts about just how that image of Washington came to look the way it does. Here a well-known biographer of Washington tells the story.
        --The Editors

A self-portrait of GIlbert Stuart
A self-portrait of GIlbert Stuart

When he was in England, Gilbert Stuart used to tell inquirers that he had been born “six miles from Pottawoone and ten miles from Pappasquash and about four miles from Conanicut and not far from the spot where the famous battle with the war-like Pequots was fought.” His British hearers assumed that he had been born in India, but readers of AMERICAN HRITAGE will undoubtedly recognize that he came from the neighborhood of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.

Stuart’s father, whose name was also Gilbert, had been brought from Scotland to erect what was called the first “engine for the manufacture of snuff” in New England. The future painter was born on December 3, 1755, and only five years later is supposed to have drawn on the earth with a stick a good likeness of a neighbor. Family tradition also records a public hanging that indirectly demonstrated his early powers of observation. The hangman, who had hidden his identity with a sheet draped from head to ankle, fooled everyone but the babe on Mrs. Stuart’s shoulder. Gilbert reported who it was. “I knew him,” the innocent lisped, “by his sues.”

When the boy was six, his father became convinced there was no money in snuff making; he abandoned his mill and moved to Newport. The painter was later to describe his family’s house as “a hovel on Bannister’s wharf.” Be that as it may, Stuart was rarely at home; he spent his time out on the streets leading a gang of urchins in outrageous pranks. The Episcopalian charity school to which he was sent served him only as a reservoir for companions he could lead astray. School books were forgotten while he frolicked with Arthur Browne, later a famous English attorney, and Benjamin Waterhouse, who was to introduce vaccination into the United States. Dr. Waterhouse remembered that Gilbert was “a very capable, self-willed boy, who, perhaps on that account, was indulged in everything, being an only son, handsome and forward, and habituated at home to have his own way in everything, with little or no control from the easy, good-natured father.” Yet Stuart was in his own way preparing himself for his future career. There were a few indifferent copies of old masters in Newport for him to see, and these inspired the drawings he made before he was well in his teens. A piece of chalk or a lump of clay served him as a pencil, and fences, barn doors, or the tailboards of wagons took the place of canvases. His technique was childish, merely the sketching of an outline, but the result impressed his neighbors.

Stuart soon made the acquaintance of Samuel King, a local artisan painter of small skill, but King shrank into insignificance when an elegant Scot turned up in Newport. Cosmo Alexander admitted in the parlors of the Scottish colony of the provincial city that he was an expert painter, that he had studied in Italy and was a member of the London Society of Artists. He pretended to be too much of a gentleman to do more than sketch for his own amusement, yet he permitted himself to be persuaded to paint portraits at a fee. Although actually no more than an obscure and inferior craftsman in the English face-painting tradition that preceded the era of Reynolds, he was the most expert artist who had practiced in Newport for years. He soon was doing a rushing business.

To Stuart’s delight, when he was still only fourteen or fifteen Alexander took him on as an apprentice. The boy accompanied his master on a painting tour through the South, and then fate presented what seemed like a marvelous boon: Alexander took him to Scotland, carrying him that much closer to the centers of Old World art. For a while the boy prospered in Glasgow and Edinburgh, following in the wake of his enterprising master. But on August 25, 1772, Alexander died. As he felt himself failing, he begged one of his friends to take care of Stuart; but this gentleman was either too poor or too callous to help the sixteen-year-old apprentice. Stuart found himself alone in a strange city.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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