Gilbert Stuart is widely considered one of America's foremost portraitists. His best known work is the unfinished portrait of George Washington that is sometimes referred to as The Athenaeum, begun in 1796 and never finished. Stuart retained the portrait and used it to paint 130 copies which he sold for $100 each. The image of George Washington featured in the painting has appeared on the United States one-dollar bill for over a century, and on various U.S. postage stamps of the 19th century and early 20th century.
Gilbert Stuart was born on December 3, 1755 in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, a village of North Kingstown, and baptized at Old Narragansett Church on April 11, 1756. He was the third child of Gilbert Stewart, a Scottish immigrant employed in the snuff-making industry, and Elizabeth Anthony Stewart, a member of a prominent land-owning family from Middletown, Rhode Island. Stuart's father worked in the first colonial snuff mill in America, which was located in the basement of the family homestead.
Gilbert Stuart moved to Newport, Rhode Island at the age of six, where his father pursued work in the merchant field. In Newport, Stuart first began to show great promise as a painter. In 1770, Stuart made the acquaintance of Scottish artist Cosmo Alexander, a visitor to the colonies who made portraits of local patrons and who became a tutor to Stuart. Under the guidance of Alexander, Stuart painted the famous portrait Dr. Hunter's Spaniels when he was fourteen years old; it hangs today in the Hunter House Mansion in Newport. The painting is also referred to as Dr. Hunter's Dogs by some accounts.
In 1771, Stuart moved to Scotland with Alexander to finish his studies; however, Alexander died in Edinburgh one year later. Stuart tried to maintain a living and pursue his painting career, but to no avail, so he returned to Newport in 1773.
Stuart's prospects as a portraitist were jeopardized by the onset of the American Revolution and its social disruptions. Stuart departed for England in 1775 following the example set by John Singleton Copley. He was unsuccessful at first in pursuit of his vocation, but he then became a protégé of Benjamin West with whom he studied for the next six years. The relationship was beneficial, with Stuart exhibiting at the Royal Academy as early as 1777.
By 1782, Stuart had met with success, largely due to acclaim for The Skater, a portrait of William Grant. It was Stuart's first full-length portrait and, according to art historian Margaret C. S. Christman, it "belied the prevailing opinion that Stuart 'made a tolerable likeness of a face, but as to the figure, he could not get below the fifth button'". Stuart said that he was "suddenly lifted into fame by a single picture".
At one point, the prices for his pictures were exceeded only by those of renowned English artists Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Despite his many commissions, however, Stuart was habitually neglectful of finances and was in danger of being sent to debtors' prison. In 1787, he fled to Dublin, Ireland where he painted and accumulated debt with equal vigor.
Stuart ended his 18-year stay in Britain and Ireland in 1793, leaving behind numerous unfinished paintings. He returned to the United States and settled briefly in New York City. In 1795, he moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania, near (and now part of) Philadelphia, where he opened a studio. It was here that he gained a foothold in the art world and lasting fame with pictures of many important Americans of the day.
Stuart painted George Washington in a series of iconic portraits, each of them leading in turn to a demand for copies, and keeping Stuart busy and highly paid for years. The most famous and celebrated of these likenesses is known as The Athenaeum and is currently portrayed on the United States one dollar bill. Stuart, along with his daughters, painted a total of 130 reproductions of The Athenaeum. However, he never completed the original version; after finishing Washington's face, he kept the original version to make the copies. He sold up to 70 of his reproductions for a price of US$100 each, but the original portrait was left unfinished at the time of Stuart's death in 1828. The painting was jointly purchased by the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1980, and was on display in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. in late 2014.
Another celebrated image of Washington is the Lansdowne portrait, a large portrait with one version hanging in the East Room of the White House. This painting was saved during the burning of Washington by British troops in the War of 1812 through the intervention of First Lady Dolley Madison and Paul Jennings, one of President James Madison's slaves. Four versions of the portrait are attributed to Stuart, and additional copies were painted by other artists for display in U.S. government buildings. In 1803, Stuart opened a studio in Washington, D. C.
Stuart moved to Devonshire Street in Boston in 1805, continuing in both critical acclaim and financial troubles. He exhibited works locally at Doggett's Repository and Julien Hall. He was sought out for advice by other artists, such as John Trumbull, Thomas Sully, Washington Allston, and John Vanderlyn.
Stuart married Charlotte Coates, who was 13 years his junior and "exceedingly pretty", about September 1786. The Stuarts had twelve children, five of whom died by 1815 and two others died while they were young. The known names of the children include Charles Gilbert, Jarvis, Emma, Elizabeth, Anne, Carlisle, Agnes Blagrove, and Jane. Charles had artistic and dramatic talent. Elizabeth was a published writer, who married a man named Benjamin Stebbins. Carlisle was noted for his agreeable disposition and died in 1820, possibly from tuberculosis. Anne lived to 68 years of age. Jane (1812–1888) was also a painter. She sold many of his paintings and her replicas of them from her studios in Boston and Newport, Rhode Island. In 2011, she was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. Three of his children—Elizabeth, Emma and an unnamed son—were committed to psychiatric hospitals following his death. There were no descendants from the family.
In 1824, he suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed; but nevertheless, he continued to paint for two years until his death in Boston on July 9, 1828 at the age of 72.
He was buried in the Old South Burial Ground of the Boston Common. Stuart left his family deeply in debt, and his wife and daughters were unable to purchase a grave site. He was, therefore, buried in an unmarked grave which was purchased cheaply from Benjamin Howland, a local carpenter. Stuart's family recovered from their financial troubles roughly ten years later, and they planned to move his body to a family cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island. However, they could not remember the exact location of his body, and it was never moved. There is a monument for Stuart, his wife, and their children at the Common Burying Ground in Newport, Rhode Island.
The Boston Athenæum held a benefit exhibition of his works in August 1828 in an effort to provide financial aid for Stuart's family. Over 250 portraits were lent for this critically acclaimed and well-subscribed exhibition. This also marked the first public showing of Stuart's unfinished 1796 Athenæum Head portrait of Washington.
By the end of his career, Gilbert Stuart had taken the likenesses of more than one thousand American political and social figures. He was praised for the vitality and naturalness of his portraits, and his subjects found his company agreeable. John Adams, for example, said:
Speaking generally, no penance is like having one's picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation.
Stuart was known for working without the aid of sketches, beginning directly upon the canvas. This was very unusual for the time period. His approach is suggested by the advice which he gave to his pupil Matthew Harris Jouett: "Never be sparing of colour, load your pictures, but keep your colours as separate as you can. No blending, tis destruction to clear & bea[u]tiful effect."
Stuart's works can be found today at art museums and private collections throughout the United States and Great Britain, including the University Club in New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
A life mask of Stuart was created by John Henri Isaac Browere around 1825.
In 1940, the U.S. Post Office issued a series of Postage stamps called the "Famous Americans Series" commemorating famous artists, authors, inventors, scientists, poets, educators, and musicians. Gilbert Stuart is found on the 1 cent issue in the artists category, along with James McNeil Whistler, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and Frederic Remington.
Today, Stuart's birthplace in Saunderstown, Rhode Island is open to the public as the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum. The museum consists of the original house which Stuart was born in, with copies of paintings from throughout his career hanging throughout the house. The museum opened in 1930.
This is a partial list of portraits painted by Stuart.Abigail Adams - Second First Lady of the United States, wife of John AdamsJohn Adams - Second President of the United StatesJohn Quincy Adams - Sixth President of the United StatesJohn Jacob Astor - First American multi-millionaire, fur trader, art patronJohn Bannister - Owner of Bannister's Wharf in Newport, Rhode IslandCommodore John Barry - Father of the American NavyAnn Willing Bingham - Philadelphia socialiteHorace Binney - Prominent Philadelphia lawyerElizabeth Bowdoin, Lady Temple, wife of Sir John Temple, first British consul general to United States, 1785.Hugh Henry Brackenridge - early American writer, Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, and founder of the University of PittsburghJoseph Brant, Thayendanegea - Mohawk soldier and statesman, painted twice in 1786.Jean Baptiste Casmiere Breschard - Performer and theatrical impresarioRosalie Stier Calvert - Belgian born heiress and mother of Charles Benedict CalvertMary Willing Clymer - Philadelphia socialiteJohn Singleton Copley - American colonial portraitistHoratio Gates - American Revolutionary War generalKing George III - King of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 1760–1820King George IV - King of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 1820–30John Jay - First Chief Justice of the United States Supreme CourtThomas Jefferson - Third President of the United StatesRufus King - a signer of United States Constitution.Robert Kingsmill - Admiral in Royal Navy during American and French Revolutionary WarsKing Louis XVI - King of France, 1774 - 1792James Madison - Fourth President of the United StatesSamuel Miles - Revolutionary War General, Philadelphia Mayor, and America's first faithless electorJames Monroe - Fifth President of the United StatesDaniel Pinckney Parker - Prominent Boston merchantJohn Randolph of Roanoke - Virginia congressman and senatorJoshua Reynolds - English artistHenry Rice - Boston merchant and Massachusetts state legislatorJohn Tayloe III - Wealthiest planter in Virginia, builder of The Octagon House in Washington, DC, later used as French Embassy and subsequently Executive Mansion by James Madison after British burned The White House.Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney, in whose honour the cities of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia and Sydney in Nova Scotia, Canada, are named, in 1785 and 1788 respectively.John Trumbull - American artist during the period of the American Revolutionary WarGeorge Washington - First President of the United StatesMartha Washington - First First Lady of the United States, wife of George WashingtonBenjamin West - American painterCatherine Brass Yates - Philadelphia socialite
Gilbert Stuart's paintings of Washington, Jefferson and others have been served as models for the engravings found on dozens of U.S. Postage stamps released over the years. Washington's image from the famous Washington portrait, The Athenaeum, is probably the most noted example of Stuart's work on U.S. Postage.For other examples of Stuart's art on US Postage see: US Presidents on US postage stamps