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Portrait of an Artist: Gilbert Stuart

As many artists know, the road to success is not a sure and steady one but one that twists and turns and at times, appears nonexistent. Such was the case with Gilbert Stuart, renowned American portrait artist of the Federalist period, whose first attempts to earn a living as a portrait artist met with little success.

Stuart was born in 1755 in Rhode Island, the son of a Scottish snuff maker. Stuart showed promising talent early on and with the help of a family friend, Dr. William Hunter, was introduced to Cosmo Alexander, a Scottish-born artist who was visiting the area. Dr. Hunter encouraged the young Stuart by commissioning the boy to paint a portrait of his dogs while Alexander gave him lessons and employed him as an assistant. Five years later, Stuart accompanied Alexander on a voyage to Edinburgh, Scotland where he intended to study with the artist and eventually start out on his own. But tragedy struck and Alexander died less than two years after their arrival.

Although Stuart attempted to set up shop on his own as a painter, he was unsuccessful and returned to Rhode Island in 1773. He again attempted to set himself up as a portraitist, however the onset of the American Revolution had a negative effect on his business. Following the example of other artists of the times, he departed for England in 1775. Once again he encountered difficulty but his fortunes changed upon his meeting with American artist Benjamin West, a highly successful history painter. Stuart became a protégé of West, studying with him for six years.

By 1782, at the age of 27, Stuart began to encounter a measure of success as a portrait artist, due largely to a painting called The Skater. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and had acquired a plethora of portrait commissions from wealthy patrons. Despite his healthy income, however, Stuart did not manage his money well and was constantly in fear of being sent to debtor’s prison. In 1787, he fled to Ireland but continued with his extravagant monetary habits.

In 1793, Stuart returned to what was now the United States, eventually settling in Philadelphia where he set up a studio. It was here that Stuart not only prospered in a business sense but also made his mark in history with the portraits of important Americans of the period. Most significant were a series of portraits of George Washington, one of which is now known as the “Athenaeum Head” and appears on the dollar bill. Other noteworthy subjects of his portraits in subsequent years were James and Dolly Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison.

Stuart was adept at capturing the personality of his subjects in their facial expressions which were natural and full of vitality. Most often, he was able to capture a likeness with just two sittings, depicting other details of the person from memory. Most often, his portraits were of a single, seated adult from the waist up but he sometimes did full length portraits and at times he painted children.

Stuart worked without the aid of preliminary sketches, preferring to work directly on the canvas. He liked to use mahogany panels instead of canvas because of their longevity but he sometimes scored the panels to give them the texture of canvas. Stuart’s portraits were not mere likenesses but most often contained a wealth of details that established the identity of the subject. He chose garments that were flattering to his subjects and if none were available that he thought suitable, he would create clothing for the portrait.

Stuart’s painting expertise was not the only reason people flocked to him to have their portraits done. The artist was known for his charm and wit and his subjects often found themselves entertained considerably during their sittings. Stuart allowed his subjects to move about freely while they posed and conversation did not hinder his progress. Unfortunately, the artist had a habit of leaving many of his paintings unfinished after the first sitting. It is said that Thomas Jefferson was still trying to obtain the portrait Stuart had begun of him twenty years after he sat for it! But somehow, people still flocked to Stuart to have their portraits done and so he was never short on commissions.

In 1803, Stuart moved to Washington, D. C. and opened a studio there. Two years later, he moved to Boston and opened yet another studio. His success continued although his financial troubles continued as well. In 1824, at the age of 69, Stuart suffered a stroke but despite his resulting paralysis, he continued to paint. Three years later, Gilbert Stuart died at the age of 72.

During his career, Stuart painted the portraits of over one thousand distinguished Americans. Although Stuart profited from his artistic endeavors, he had found the need to be constantly vigilant about unauthorized copies of his work. Stuart once took a shrewd businessman to court for attempting to sell unauthorized copies of one of his Washington portraits. Fortunately, Stuart won the suit but other violations continued to occur. Today, the portrait of Washington that is shown on the dollar bill is jointly owned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is a testament to the importance of portrait art and its role as a visual record of American history.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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