Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 338 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)
As a painter, Gilbert Stuart was just barely American. The son of a newly immigrant Scots snuff miller, he was born in 1755 in Rhode Island, and was soon moved to cosmopolitan Newport, a flourishing port active in the triangular trade that turned molasses into rum and rum into African slaves. The young Stuart showed precocious musical ability, and in his journeyman years often played the organ in churches to make ends meet. When he turned, in his teens, to sketching and painting, Scots artists Cosmo Alexander and his brother-in-law, Sir George Chalmers, took the young man’s apprenticeship, loosely, in hand. In Alexander’s care Stuart traveled, in 1771 or 1772, to Edinburgh. He returned to Newport in 1773 with enough skill to sell some stiffish portraits, echoing John Singleton Copley’s literalist style, to local merchants. Then, like Copley, he sought greener, and less politically ruffled, pastures in the mother country; he arrived in London at nineteen and stayed for twelve years, becoming a successful portraitist in the glamorous, colorful, fluent English manner.
If there is anything specifically American left within Stuart’s accomplished brilliance, it might be a reluctance to flatter his subjects, as he probes the carapace of class with a certain debonair candor and psychological acuity. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1784), for instance, shows the esteemed ruler of the British Academy as suspicious and a bit bleary, holding not a paintbrush but a snuffbox. John FitzGibbon (1789–1790) sumptuously renders the gold lace–trimmed robes of black silk damask, the shiny satin knickers, the—to quote the eloquent and informative catalog—“formal full-bottom” wig, the “ornate harped crown of the silver-gilt mace,” and, in an especially striking bravura passage of brushwork, the embroidered and appliquéd square of the Lord Chancellor’s purse, for carrying an official speech; but amid all this regalia Stuart includes FitzGibbon’s sharp small scornful face, almost angry with haughtiness, pinched as it were by his piled-on prerogatives. We can believe that, as Carrie Rebora Barratt tells us in one of her catalog essays, FitzGibbon’s “funeral procession in 1802 was trailed by a jeering, pelting mob.”
Stuart’s urbane development left scarcely a splinter of the woodenness that lingers in the work of his compatriots Copley and Benjamin West—West, who took the starving novice Londoner on as a studio assistant “finishing drapery and backgrounds on what Stuart would later refer to as his master’s ‘ten-acre pictures.’” However Anglicized his painting became, Stuart’s career was recognizably American: disheveled, reckless, well-publicized, debt-ridden, desperately industrious but profligate. He lived on a large scale in London, and he and his wife eventually produced twelve children. He not infrequently quarreled with his portrait subjects; his garrulousness while painting did not please every sitter; he left many canvases unfinished.
His biographer Dorinda Evans focuses on what she defines as “an affliction of bipolarity”; there is ample testimony that he was frequently “under the influence of the devil who steals men’s brains if permitted …