Nat’l Gallery Displays the Familiar Faces of Stuart

Posted March 25, 2005 at 5:45pm

Gilbert Stuart is credited with painting the images of the early presidents into the American consciousness. After all, what school kid hasn’t gazed at Stuart’s full-length rendering of George Washington — decked in a black velvet suit, left hand on his sword hilt as he gestures with his right arm into the distance — and been at least a wee bit awed by the grandeur of “the father of our country”?

“Gilbert Stuart,” a new exhibit which opened Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, does not disappoint in its trove of Washington portraits — two rooms and 13 pictures are devoted to the first president — or its inclusion of the iconic black-suited bust and half-length renderings Stuart did of Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. But the retrospective also provides viewers with a glimpse into the capricious, Madeira quaffing, snuff-pinching artist beyond his patriotic reputation, as a fantastic painter of faces. Period.

He didn’t start out that way, however.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of the exhibit is to follow the development of the young Stuart, a native Rhode Islander, as he evolves from a rather conventional executer of proper, blank-faced portraits of 18th-century personages into a sophisticated interpreter of the human face in all its range of emotion.

Following in the footsteps of other aspiring American painters, Stuart left the United States in 1775 for training in Europe, and worked as an apprentice in fellow expatriate painter Benjamin West’s London studio. His early breakthrough came with his first full-length portrait, “The Skater,” which depicted Scottish lawyer William Grant, arms folded across his chest as he nimbly poses on the ice in proper black breeches, hat and shirt frill. The picture was all the rage at a Royal Academy exhibition in 1782, and soon Stuart was on his way. Among the paintings from this period are a highly aristocratic girl in a floral setting, a sensitive portrayal of Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, and a frank rendering of English painter Joshua Reynolds, with the rather unusual addition of a snuffbox in his hand.

But despite Stuart’s rising fame in the art world — one paper dubbed him the “Van Dyck of his time” — he had difficulty staying solvent. He moved to Dublin, where he racked up more fame and bills, and briefly landed in debtor’s jail around the same time the United States was inaugurating its first president. In need of a way to make some dough, Stuart, who sat out the American Revolution in the United Kingdom, hit on a scheme to end his money worries: “make a fortune by Washington alone.”

So in 1793, he set sail for his homeland, heading first to New York, where he completed one of his most fascinating character studies: a portrait of Catherine Brass Yates, the wife of a rich New York merchant, as she sits sewing, her long, pronounced nose and determined eyes peering out from under the heights of her mobcap.

The following year Stuart arrived in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, and began his evolution into America’s chief patriotic painter. He prevailed on his old associate, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, whom he had twice failed to deliver commissions to, to give him a letter of introduction to Washington, who conceded to a sitting despite having largely sworn off any more portraits. (Washington, at least initially, was far from taken with Stuart’s constant banter, though he eventually warmed to the subject of horses, according to the exhibit’s co-curator, Ellen Miles.)

And here begins the story of the three Georges — each rendering of Washington derived from a different set of sittings Stuart obtained with the nation’s first president between 1795 and 1796. In all of these, Stuart, unlike Washington’s fellow Continental Army veterans, artists Charles Wilson Peale and John Trumbull, chose to depict Washington in civilian attire.

The first of his Washington pictures, the Vaughan portrait (named after the owner of one of its replicas), exists only in reproduction form — Stuart apparently destroyed the original — and shows a lean, long-jawed Washington, painted at bust-length, with a ruddy face and roughly painted black jacket.

The second rendering, the Athenaeum portrait, is modeled after a pair of pictures of Washington and his wife, Martha, which were commissioned by Mrs. Washington but never completed or delivered to the first family. It shows Washington with a compact jaw, looking slightly severe, no doubt thanks in part to a new set of false teeth he acquired before the sitting. That famous left view of Washington’s visage, however, became the basis for a series of 75 replicas, five of them included in the exhibit, which can be viewed in near flip-book continuity as the definition, coloring, detail of his shirt frill and hair ribbon vary slightly from picture to picture. The Athenaeum portrait would also — ironically, given Stuart’s initial motivation for painting Washington — become closely linked to the United States’ principal monetary unit: the reverse image of it appears on the dollar bill.

A similar version of Washington’s face pops up again in Stuart’s full-length masterpiece of Washington — known as the Lansdowne Portrait and done in 1796 for the Marquis of Lansdowne. This is the picture most Americans associate with Washington — in 2001, the National Portrait Gallery paid $20 million to acquire it — although only the face was painted from life. The rest of Washington’s figure, set against a plush background of columns and drapery, was the result of a stand-in, leading Washington’s grandson to harrumph that Stuart had injected “a plumpness, or fleshiness” into Washington’s form that didn’t exist in reality. The show includes three copies of this portrait — two are very similar, but the third repositions a taller, more svelte Washington, perhaps more in line with reality, against a slightly altered background.

Throughout his career, Stuart was known for painting his pictures on his own time, and delivered them when he pleased — if at all. When Napoleon’s brother, Jerome, urged him to expedite the artistic process while working on his and his wife’s portraits, Stuart abruptly stopped work on Jerome’s figure, leaving us with a head atop a blocked-off body, a blank space where an arm might be.

Several of the portraits included in “Gilbert Stuart” also attest to the artist’s impish side.

In a portrait of Anna Payne Cutts, the youngest sister of Dolley Madison (portraits of the former first lady and her husband are reunited in the exhibit for the first time in more than 150 years), Stuart humorously shapes the background drapery around a column into a human profile, apparently inspired by discussions with Cutts in which he asserted that the nose was the defining feature of the face.

In 1803, Stuart set up shop in Washington, D.C., where the federal capital had moved three years before, just across the street from the current site of the National Gallery, in a studio near Sixth and C streets Northwest. There, he intended to create a portrait gallery to display his work — he was a hot commodity in town, after all. But the gallery never happened. Exhausted, he fell ill with malaria, and when former Sen. Jonathan Mason (Federalist-Mass.) offered him an entree into Boston society, he took him up on his offer, in the process skipping out on his rent.

Coming at the very end of the exhibit, Stuart’s final portrait of Adams at age 90 — he is seated on a red sofa, a hand resting on a cane, his face crumpled with age — provides a fittingly elegant capstone for the artist’s career. (Stuart died in 1828, four years after completing the picture.)

The brushstrokes may be looser and the figure less defined, but the portrait succeeds superbly in stopping the viewer dead in his tracks — as if under some hypnotic spell cast by Adams’ piercing gaze. There is nothing artificial or idealized about this picture. It seems Stuart has reached the pinnacle goal of any good portraitist: He’s captured Adams’ very soul.

“Gilbert Stuart” will be on view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building through July 31. For more information on exhibit-related activities, go to https://www.nga.gov.