Gilbert Stuart, the “first world-class American painter,” was “indisputably the best American painter of his age.” Stuart portrayed virtually all the notable men and women of the Federal period in the United States. Born in the village of Saunderstown in North Kingstown, Rhode Island in 1755, Gilbert was the son of a Scottish immigrant who made his living manufacturing snuff. He moved with his family to Newport, Rhode Island when he was six years old. As a boy, Stuart learned to sketch faces and caricatures from an African slave, Neptune Thurston. He may have taken painting lessons from Samuel King. He was also a talented organist, the prize pupil of Trinity Church organist John Knoechel. From 1769 until 1771 he studied with the visiting Italian-trained Scottish artist Cosmo Alexander in Newport. When Alexander returned to Edinburgh, Stuart went with him. In August of 1772, Alexander died unexpectedly, leaving Stuart to make his way back to Newport on his own in the fall of 1773, where he set himself up as a portrait painter. In 1775, shortly after the first revolutionary shots had been fired at Lexington, Stuart left for London to study painting. He supported himself as a church organist at St. Catherine’s in London while gaining experience as a portraitist. In 1777 he was accepted into the studio of the American expatriate artist Benjamin West where he was hired at “half a guinea a week for paint[ing] draperies & finishing up West’s portraits.” Soon he advanced to copyist, and eventually worked on portions of the master’s large-scale historical paintings. Stuart came to feel, however, that “no man ever painted history if he could obtain employment in portraits.” He also studied the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and George Romney, but quickly developed his own style. Stuart is quoted as having said: “For my own part, I will not follow any master. I wish to find out what nature is for myself, and see her with my own eyes. This appears to me the true road to excellence.” Even the master, West, could not replicate Stuart’s technique for producing glowing flesh tones. The young artist exhibited his first portrait, of an unidentified woman, at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1777, exhibited three paintings in 1779, and in 1781 a portrait of West which was critically acclaimed. West himself is reported to have said that as a portraitist Stuart “nails the face to the canvass.” While in London, Stuart attended lectures on anatomy by Dr. William Cruikshank. Stuart set up his own studio on Newman Street in 1782, and became immediately successful following the Royal Academy exhibition that year of his full-length portrait of the barrister William Grant, titled The Skater. In London Stuart was called “the Vandyke of the Time.” In 1786 he married Charlotte Coates of Reading, Berkshire, and left London for Dublin, Ireland in 1787, where he achieved further success as a portraitist. Despite his success, Stuart lived much of his life on the verge of bankruptcy due to his extravagant lifestyle and less-than-competent business skills, compounded by his need to support his wife and their twelve children.
In 1793 Stuart sailed back to what had become the United States, arriving in New York City, and moving on to the nation’s capitol in Philadelphia in 1794. He had returned abruptly, with the express intention of making a fortune by painting a “plurality of portraits” of the new American president, George Washington. Washington himself gave the artist permission to make replicas of his portraits, the rights to which Stuart later struggled legally to retain. During his career, Stuart painted at least one hundred versions of the three portraits of Washington he had done from life, sometimes painting more than one replica at a time. Best-known is his 1796 “Athenaeum” portrait (unfinished), which is the image on the US dollar bill. His regal, full-length “Lansdowne” portrait established Washington abroad as a national leader of international stature. Stuart followed the capitol when it was moved to Washington, DC, working there from 1803 to 1805. In 1805 he settled in Boston. Over the course of his career, Stuart painted more than a thousand portraits. He rarely worked with preliminary drawings, instead painting directly on the canvas in delicately applied pure pigment, building up layers of luminous color. For Stuart, “the face was the painting; the rest of it was just wrapping paper.” His intent was to “penetrate through the manner to the man,” capturing on his canvas the essence of the personality and spirit beneath the public persona. Stuart was known for his humor and charm and entertained his sitters during long hours of posing, not only to relax his subjects, but to draw them into conversation in order to “draw out the minds of his sitters.” Stuart was a member of the American Academy, and was made an honorary member of the National Academy of Design in 1830. His works were exhibited at: the Royal Academy and the Incorporated Society of Artists, London; the National Academy of Design; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; the Brooklyn Art Association; and the Boston Art Club. The artist died in Boston in 1828 at the age of seventy-two. His paintings are held among the collections of museums and galleries throughout North and South America and Europe.