Monday, February 19, 2007

Gilbert Stuart

Gilbert StuartIn addition to his famous portraits of our first president, George “father of his country but not exactly the handsomest guy” Washington, Gilbert Stuart, who has been rightly called the father of American portraiture, did less-well-known portraits of the next four presidents, First Ladies Dolley Madison and Abigail Adams, artists Benjamin West, Joshua Reynolds, John Trumbull and John Singleton Copley, as well as numerous members of high society in American and England.

After initial study with the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander, he became a student of Benjamin West, an American painter who had become very successful in England and was eventually elected president of the Royal Academy there. Stuart studied with West for five years, returned to the States and set up shop in Germantown, a suburb of Philadelphia (later incorporated into the city). He later settled in Boston, and museums in that city, as well as Philadelphia and New York, hold much of his work.

Stuart painted three portraits of Washington from life, but then, due to great demand, turned out over 100 replicas of them, starting a successful cottage industry in presidential portraits (and perhaps laying the groundwork for Presidents Day sales).

The most renowned of these portrait series is the “Lansdowne” type, based on a full length portrait painted in Philadelphia, the most famous version of which was painted for the White House, and the original version of which hangs here in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (image at left, top). It’s interesting to look at the differences in the handling of the draperies, the faces, and the rainbow arcing across the sky in these two versions.

Many other copies of this painting hang in state houses in other states. The White House version of the painting was rescued from the White House by Dolley Madison, when that structure was burned during the War of 1812.

The most famous of Stuart’s Washington portraits is the “Athenaeum Head“, the unfinished portrait of Washington facing to his right that was commissioned by Martha Washington, an engraved version of which faces the other direction as he stares out at us from the front of the one dollar bill (talk about painting money). The other major Washington portrait type is the “Vaughn” type, with washington facing to his left, which was actually the first painted and of which there are at least 15 of his replicas known. (You can see couple of them on the ARC site.)

Stuart’s style, though directly influenced by West, carried a lot of the feeling of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, who were very influential at the time. Some of Stuart’s society portraits feel stiff, showing pasty-faced rich folk with dour expressions that look a bit like the portraits, and their subjects, have been gathering dust for some time. Others, however, are bright and engaging, showing a remarkable flair for color, lively brushwork and a forceful sense of the sitter’s personality, like his portrait of Rachel Harvey Montgomery, or his beautiful dual portrait of Mrs. Samuel Gratliff and her Daughter (image at left, middle and detail, bottom). These paintings are also here in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

There is also a nice online feature on the site for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, based on an exhibition from 2004, that gives a good overview of Stuart’s work.

Stuart was well-liked by his patrons, very popular and quite successful in his career, with the slight exception of the fact that he tended to live beyond his means, neglected his financial affairs and was often under threat of being sent to debtor’s prison. Since he didn’t actually have the ability to paint money, he moved to Ireland to avoid his creditors, and wound up in financial trouble there as well.

I guess he just couldn’t wait for credit cards and Presidents Day sales.

 

3 thoughts on “Gilbert Stuart

  1. Daniel van Benthuysen

    It’s interesting to consider what we might think of Gilbert Stuart had he NOT painted ANY portraits of George Washington. Rather like the problem of the actor who gets typecast in a particular kind of role again and again. Since Washington the man was more than a bit of a stiff (a role he felt necessary as president of the new republic) then Stuart’s many portraits come off the same way. Stuart really was a gifted portraitist in whose hands the images of children and artists and statesmen came to life. My personal favorite is here in New York at the Met: The Skater (William Grant), 1782, a painting which if ‘read’ from top to bottom starts out as a sober and pensive conventional portrait and ends at the bottom as a rendering of an elegant gentleman having a bit of fun figure skating! It’s very popular as a Christmas card.

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