Gilbert Stuart was one of the foremost painters of the Atlantic world and early United States. His portraits of key figures of the American Revolution and early republic remain the way that modern Americans view many of the Founding Fathers and other figures central to the nation’s formative years. Stuart’s most iconic portrait, the Athenaeum portrait of George Washington, serves as the basis for Washington’s depiction on the American one-dollar bill.
Gilbert Stuart was born on December 3, 1755 in Kingstown, Rhode Island, to Gilbert Stuart Sr. and Elizabeth Anthony. Stuart’s father was a Scottish millwright and immigrated to New England to establish a snuff mill for a fellow Scotsman, Dr. Thomas Moffatt. The younger Stuart spent the first five years of his life in the mill house. Following the failure of his father’s business, however, the family moved to a small property Stuart’s mother had inherited in Newport, Rhode Island. There, his family ran a retail business and Stuart developed a love for music and drawing.1
Stuart may have learned how to sketch faces from an enslaved man named Neptune Thurston in Newport. In his early years, Stuart developed his talent for drawing, one that he shared with his best friend, Benjamin Waterhouse. However, as a young man, Stuart was better known in Newport for his impressive skill at playing the organ, which he continued to practice throughout his life, often playing in local churches to support himself financially whenever his portrait commissions were insufficient.2
In 1769, Stuart’s formal education in painting began at the age of fourteen when the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander came to Newport to paint a commission for Dr. William Hunter during his travels through the American colonies.3 Alexander took Stuart under his wing. After some time in Newport, where Stuart copied some of Alexander’s portraits, the two embarked on a painting tour through the southern colonies, visiting places such as Williamsburg, Norfolk, and Charleston. In 1771, master and student went to Edinburgh, Scotland, where Stuart planned to continue his studies under Alexander. However, Alexander’s death in August 1772 left Stuart stranded in Scotland with hardly anything to his name.
What happened to Stuart after Alexander's death is a bit unclear, but most historians conclude that Alexander’s brother-in-law, Sir George Chalmers, became his guardian. Chalmers, however, soon abandoned Stuart, most likely due to the fact that Chalmers was severely in debt. Left in dire financial straits, Stuart eventually managed to make his way back to Newport, but he hardly ever referred to this experience again. It is unclear whether he attended the University of Glasgow during his time in Scotland, and while his degree of formal education is uncertain, those who observed and were acquainted with Stuart later in life considered him to be well-read and literary-minded.4
Stuart returned to Newport sometime late in 1773. For the next few years he used the skills he had developed under Alexander to paint a few portraits of local merchants and their families. In April 1775, Stuart was in Boston when the War for Independence began but managed to make his way back to Newport “about ten days before the Battle of Bunker-hill” in June. Benjamin Waterhouse, like many Scots in Newport (possibly including Stuart’s father), remained loyal to the Crown. Stuart’s own political views remain unclear, although Waterhouse recalled him commenting, “Hang the King, what is he to us? He lives too far off to do us any good.”5
In 1775, Stuart’s father moved the rest of his family to land he had purchased in Nova Scotia years earlier. In September, Stuart sailed for London to join Waterhouse, who had left earlier to study medicine. Waterhouse would go on to become the first doctor to test the smallpox vaccine in the United States in 1800. By the time Stuart arrived in London, Waterhouse had left already for medical school in Edinburgh, leaving Stuart once again alone in Europe with little money.
Eventually, Waterhouse returned to London and found Stuart depressed and living in a boardinghouse. Despite his dedication to his medical career, Waterhouse remained deeply invested in his friend’s art.6 He took it upon himself to reinvigorate Stuart’s artistic spirits and for a while supported him financially by helping him obtain commissions and often paying off debts that Stuart frequently incurred.7 Stuart often took commissions and even payment, but never completed the works or fulfilled his contracts. This habit, along with indebtedness, were problems that persisted throughout Stuart’s life.
Around two years after his arrival in London, Stuart sought out the Pennsylvania-born artist Benjamin West who had settled in England in 1763 and had quickly become incredibly popular for painting historical scenes, earning the patronage of King George III and the title “Historical Painter to the King.”8 Few of Stuart’s letters survive, but in one to West, he explained his increasingly dire situation and expressed his desire to, “live & learn without being a Burthen.”9 West, who was known to be gracious to young American artists seeking to learn, welcomed Stuart and not only hired him but gave him a studio and a place to stay.
Over the next decade, Stuart became immensely accomplished and renowned as an artist, even holding exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts. Some distinguishing characteristics of his art were his liberal use of color and how he often painted without the use of sketches. Stuart developed his portraiture in the European style at the time, but his attention to detail and expression were skills he particularly cultivated.10 The European style in the late eighteenth century was, in part, a revival of the classical style of Ancient Greece that presented ideal beauty; but in portraiture, where most clients were of the aristocracy, the simplicity so prevalent in the classical style was combined with a subtle grandeur.11
Although for much of that time he painted mostly heads, his first exhibited full-length portrait was the Portrait of a Gentleman Skating now known commonly as The Skater. During this period of success, Stuart married Charlotte Coates on May 10, 1786. She was thirteen years his junior, but they shared a passion for music and Stuart stated that she, “relieved him from all the cares of this life.”12
Despite his numerous commissions, Stuart’s finances remained precarious. He consistently spent more than he earned. In 1787, Stuart left London for Dublin to flee his creditors. He spent the next six years in Ireland where he reestablished his business, but also accumulated more debts. By 1793, Stuart, despite receiving numerous commissions from nobles and businessmen alike, once again looked to flee his creditors.13
Stuart settled on a plan to paint George Washington. He believed that Washington’s fame not only in America, but among many people in Ireland and Britain would allow him to generate substantial income. Stuart related this plan to James Dowling Herbert, an artist and writer whom Stuart had befriended in Ireland. “I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone," he wrote, adding, "I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits, whole lengths, will enable me to realize; and if I should be fortunate, I will repay my English and Irish creditors. To Ireland and England I shall bid adieu.”14
Stuart financed his travel to America by collecting on commissions he left half completed. He arrived in New York in May 1793. Now thirty-eight years old, he succeeded in America by fusing the European grand style of portraiture with his own distinctive style that blended what he had learned in London, picked up in Dublin, and his own affinity for color and realism.
Stuart proceeded to paint a number of prominent merchants and government officials in New York, such as Horatio Gates, Aaron Burr, and John Jay, the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Jay was arguably the most significant subject who sat to Stuart during this period because it was Jay who finally wrote the letter of introduction to George Washington that earned Stuart the opportunity he so desired.15
Stuart left New York after barely more than a year. He went to Philadelphia to paint his first portrait of President Washington in 1795, now known as the Vaughan type after its first owner, Samuel Vaughan. Stuart disliked this portrait, claiming he was too overwhelmed by the man himself to produce a better likeness. He repainted the portrait from memory in order to improve the piece but remained dissatisfied with the final product as it had not been painted from life.16
Stuart once again had the opportunity to paint Washington in 1796. This time he produced a full-length likeness commissioned by the Marquis of Lansdowne and the Philadelphia socialite Anne Willing Bingham, who had requested that Washington sit for it.17 Martha Washington had also commissioned a portrait of her husband and a matching one of herself sometime prior; this likeness of the president would be known as the famous Athenaeum portrait. Over the course of multiple sittings, Stuart began the Athenaeum portrait and used that as the basis for the Lansdowne portrait, named after the initial commissioner. However, Stuart never gave the painting to Washington, nor did he give it to Martha, who repeatedly requested it after the death of her husband in 1799.18
Stuart’s contemporaries considered the Athenaeum portrait as the peak of his work, as did Washington’s own step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, in part because the overall expression and the classical style portrays Washington as a moral ideal, exuding power and authority. The portrait's incomplete state is perhaps another factor contributing to its distinction as it seems to bring focus to Washington’s head with the unfinished background providing it more dimension and realism.19 These factors were fitting for a man so idolized as Washington, and Stuart made the most of the image's wide appeal by painting and selling many replicas of it. With an engraving of the portrait printed on the one-dollar bill, the Athenaeum is generally believed to be the most recognizable portrait of Washington.
While painting Washington in 1795, Stuart had moved to Philadelphia and planned to return to London after a year or so. However, he lacked the money for a voyage, as he remained unable to control his spending habits. He relocated again in 1803, after the federal capital moved to Washington, D.C. Finally, in 1805, he and his family settled in Boston. The Stuarts had a total of twelve children, and their father outlived seven of them. The aging artist was particularly depressed in 1817, after the death of his son Charles from tuberculosis.20
Gilbert Stuart died in Boston on July 9, 1828, at the age of seventy-two. He had suffered a stroke four years earlier that left his face paralyzed. He continued to paint and advise young painters despite the paralysis. Stuart had over twenty students for differing lengths of time and his daughter Jane Stuart was his last assistant.21
Of his numerous paintings, the Athenaeum portrait remains pre-eminently influential and widely known, though Stuart further cemented his place as one of the foremost portraitists of the new nation as he painted the first six presidents and most of their wives. These included multiple portraits of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom greatly admired his work. Jefferson wrote about a simple profile bust that Stuart drew of him as, “the best which has been taken of me.” Adams preferred to sit to Stuart more than other painters.23
George Mason University
1 Dorinda Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 3-4.
2 Carrie Rebora Barratt, Gilbert Stuart. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004), 13. EDITOR’S NOTE (JPA): The extent of Neptune Thurston’s involvement in Stuart’s training remains unclear. His first appearance in the historical record may be an 1839 edition of The New-Yorker, which reprints an article from the Herald of the Times (Newport, RI). The piece recounts Stuart’s visit to the former home of Edward Thurston, a cooper who occupied a building on a wharf in Providence, Rhode Island, and the enslaved Neptune’s owner. The article indicates that Stuart met with Thurston’s granddaughter in the home, who had heard that Neptune had taught Stuart how to draw faces, something that Stuart confirmed to her. The piece’s language strongly indicates it was the Reverend Edward Peterson’s source for his 1853 history of Rhode Island. “It is also said,” Peterson wrote, “that [Stuart] derived his first impression of painting from witnessing Neptune Thurston, a slave, who was employed in his master’s cooper shop, sketch likenesses on the head of casks, and remarked that if he had an instructor, he would make quite a celebrated artist.” Subsequent authors have cited Peterson’s work. More research on Neptune Thurston is needed. “Anecdote of Gilbert Stuart,” The New-Yorker, 16 February 1839, p. 344, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_New_Yorker/BAU3AQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=The%20New-Yorker%20Volume%206%201838&pg=PA344&printsec=frontcover; Reverend Edward Peterson, History of Rhode Island (New York: John S. Taylor, 1853), 153-154.
3 Barratt, Gilbert Stuart, 13.
4 Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart, 4.
5 Benjamin Waterhouse, quoted in Dorinda Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) 10
6 Philip Cash. "Waterhouse, Benjamin (1754-1846), physician and scientist." American National Biography. 1 Feb. 2000; Accessed 1 Dec. 2019. https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1200951
7 Barratt, Gilbert Stuart, 24.
8 Allen Staley. "West, Benjamin (1738-1820), painter." American National Biography. 1 Feb. 2000; Accessed 1 Dec. 2019. https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1700917
9 Gilbert Stuart to Benjamin West, 1776, quoted in William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. (New York: Dover Publications), 172-173.
10 John Hill Morgan. Gilbert Stuart and his Pupils; together with the complete notes on painting by Matthew Harris Jouett from conversations with Gilbert Stuart in 1816. (New York: Kennedy Galleries, 1936).
11 Katharine Baetjer. “Portrait Painting in England, 1600–1800.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bpor/hd_bpor.htm
12 Gilbert Stuart, 1817, quoted in Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart, 48.
13 James Dowling Herbert, Irish Varieties, for the Last Fifty Years: Written from Recollections. (London: W. Joy, 1836), 246-47.
14 Herbert, Irish Varieties, for the Last Fifty Years: Written from Recollections, 248.
15 Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart, 60.
16 William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. (New York: Dover Publications), 197-98, 167.
17 George Washington to Gilbert Stuart, 11 April 1796, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00429
18 Tobias Lear to Gilbert Stuart, 10 March 1800, Digital Collections from the Washington Library, accessed October 1, 2019. https://catalog.mountvernon.org/digital/collection/p16829coll39/id/11/rec/2.
19 Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart, 65-66.
20 Henry Pickering, “Interviews,” 4 October 1817, quoted in Evans, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart, 98-99.
21 Morgan, Gilbert Stuart and his Pupils.
22 Thomas Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford, 21 February 1815, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-08-02-0224.
23 Barratt, Gilbert Stuart, 5.
Barratt, Carrie Rebora, and Ellen Gross Miles. Gilbert Stuart. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.
Dunlap, William. A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States. New York: Dover Publications, 1834.
Evans, Dorinda. The Genius of Gilbert Stuart. Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press, 1999.
Flexner, James Thomas. Gilbert Stuart; a great life in brief. New York: Knopf, 1955.
Kamensky, Jane. A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley. New York: W. W. Norton & Company (2016).
Morgan, John Hill. Gilbert Stuart and his Pupils; together with the complete notes on painting by Matthew Harris Jouett from conversations with Gilbert Stuart in 1816. New York: Kennedy Galleries, 1936.