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 to enter their mouths”—that is, he was “attached to drinking.” Debts and a waning patronage led him to move from London to Dublin, where for six years he prolifically painted the Anglo-Irish elite of the thriving, attractive Georgian city. In 1793, however, he set sail for New York, determined to win permission to paint a portrait of George Washington, the heroic president of the republic that had replaced the colony Stuart had abandoned eighteen years before.
Stuart was in full possession of his gifts by the age of twenty, and for the next fifty years, in spite of drink and debt and fits of temper, he plied those gifts at a high level. The portraits he did in Boston, his last city of residence, from 1805 to 1828, include some of his best; their appeal is actually intensified, to a contemporary eye, by some hasty, rough, and unfinished patches. In the cursorily outlined cannon on which the portly old warrior Henry Knox (1806) rests his chunky hand, and in the boldly spattery epaulettes and decorations worn by Major General Henry Dearborn (1812–1813), and in the Manet-like grays and gray-browns and blacks of the dashing portrait of Stuart’s close friend and distinguished competitor John Trumbull (1818), we feel the artist’s well-practiced hand enjoying itself. Age itself is confronted, as Stuart’s life winds down, in two portraits of subjects in their late eighties: John Adams (1823–1824), his thoughtful eyes still glinting in his eroded and truculent face, and Lydia Pickering Williams (1824), armored in frilly lace cap and muslin fichu, her large nose illustrating the artist’s theory that the nose is the key to “likeness and character.” Her little sunken mouth, half-smiling like that of the Mona Lisa, is what we fasten on, though, as if it might start to speak, perhaps voicing a version of her dry recorded opinion “that she was too old, & that in a few years, the portrait would be transferred by her grand children to the garret.”
The Metropolitan exhibition has divided Stuart’s long career into the cities he worked in: Newport, London, Dublin, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston, the rooms painted in bright flat Williamsburg colors, yellow and maroon. The naive family portraits he did in Newport (the Banister family, circa 1773; the Malbone brothers, circa 1774) were quickly surpassed by the intent, shiny-skinned head of his friend Benjamin Waterhouse (1775), who gave up his early interest in drawing “in despair” of competing with Stuart, and took up the study of medicine instead; Waterhouse was to significantly enhance American well-being by introducing smallpox vaccine in 1800, and provided in his autobiography useful reminiscences of his childhood friend.
In London, Stuart proved an apt pupil of English masters, imitating the seventeenth-century William Dobson with a luminous self-portrait of 1778 (he looks lean and harried, as in his only other known self-portrait, an oil sketch of 1786) and glorifying the children of aristocrats as adroitly as Gainsborough and Reynolds and Romney. The subject of Master Clarke (1783–1784) is almost too darling in his all-red suit and long blond curls, and he gingerly poses with bow and arrow in front of a tree trunk that looks painted on a stage flat; the background of the intensely perky Henrietta Elizabeth Frederica Vane (1782– 1783) is even more cursorily brushed in, but—a charming touch—an insubstantial tree extends a tenuous twig that the substantial child tenderly grasps in a well-drawn little hand, implausibly uniting foreground and background. It is a magical large painting, though it was not Stuart’s nature to treat juvenile subjects with the kind of overanimation that Copley lavished on his ecstatic vision of The Three Youngest Daughters of George III (1785).
Stuart was nothing of a landscapist, and little of a naturalist. The artificial and sketchy backgrounds of high-end English portraiture well suited what appears to have been a thoroughly indoor temperament; in his head of Copley (circa 1784) and his full-length portrait of the redoubtable admiral John Gell (1785), Nature figures as a diagonal blur of pale and dark clouds—a Romantic scribble of windy English weather. In The Skater (William Grant) (1782), a tour de force among Stuart’s best-known works, the disconnect between subject and environment leads us to doubt the reality of the ice upon which the stately skater so gracefully, gravely poses. Lean-necked Eleanor Gordon (circa 1783–1784), with her luxuriant tumble of dark-brown hair, lightly holds a sheet of music in a vague setting of thinly brushed beige silhouettes, whether indoors or outdoors is hard to tell. There is vagueness, also, about her identity; she might be Charlotte Clive.
Even in this exhibition’s choice selection, one can see that Stuart’s attention sometimes flagged in his profession of, as he called it, “making faces.” Among the bland and interchangeable Children of the Second Duke of Northumberland (1787), only the greyhound’s golden eye and the aqua-colored feathered hat on the extreme left seem to have really caught the painter’s fancy. He gave his full attention, however, to the pursy, censorious expression of his mentor Benjamin West (1783–1784), and to the rueful reverie of the expatriate Mohawk Joseph Brant (1786), who had fought under British command in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars and ornamented London court society with his mixture of Iroquois headdress and metallic emblems of his service to the King.
During his six Dublin years, Stuart executed the richly accoutered images of John FitzGibbon and, of exactly equal size and splendor, that of his political opponent, the speaker of the Irish House of Commons John Foster (1790–1791). But Ireland seems to have roused mostly a domestic mood. The double portrait labeled Anna Dorothea Foster and Charlotte Anna Dick (1790–1791) weirdly seems to show the same young woman, in profile and then in three-quarters view, as if anticipating his often-reproduced triple portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (1804). A high level of satisfaction, for painter and subjects both, is reached in the pendant portraits of Catherine Lane Barker and William Barker (both circa 1791), tranquilly busy with her needlework and his architectural plans, and in the image of William Burton Conyngham (circa 1791–1792), his modest traveling clothes of wool and velvet belying his status as an enlightened and active aristocrat whose library, after his death, occasioned “the largest book auction in the country’s history.” For these worthies Stuart employed a slightly soft focus that, combined with the sensible life he instills behind the appraising eyes of his subjects, will win the patronage, after his return to the New World in the spring of 1793, of prominent New Yorkers and, above all, of the political eminences of the United States.
His portrait of John Jay (1794), who gave Stuart entrée to New York’s elite circles as well as a cru-cial letter of introduction to President Washington, is oddly milky and contains—what is almost becoming a Stuart signature—unresolved passages. In his pastel-colored William Bayard (1793–1794), the inkwell on the table is sketched in black twice, the letter Bayard holds in his hand is a hasty stab in white, and his coat is rumpled by a chair that is not there. Nevertheless, the innocently tentative and quizzical look on the young merchant king’s visage and the jaunty levity of his pale green jacket and dotted pink vest make this one of Stuart’s freshest works. The battered face of Horatio Yates (1793–1794), above the virtuoso rendering of his general’s uniform, and the thin, wry features of Catherine Brass Yates (1793–1794), as her finely painted hands manipulate a needle and thread, are lifted out of homeliness into the charm of vitality. Most dazzlingly, Matilda Stoughton de Jaudenes y Nebot (1794), the American wife of an aspiring minor Spanish official, sits drenched in displayed wealth; pearls, diamonds, gold embroidery, and lace trim are topped by a preposterous plumed coronet fastened to her frizzy wig by pearl-rimmed brooches, while her face, aping the arrogance of her husband in a pendant portrait, dares the viewer to doubt her status. She is every inch an aggressively expensive New Yorker, yet Stuart lets us see that she is quite young, a good girl frozen in her party dress, and exposes a dulcet slope of one breast.
The next room is the heart of the show, and the reason so many parents brought their children. Fourteen portraits of the Father of our Country in one great yellow room—a herd? a flock? a bevy? of George Washingtons!—has its comedy as well as a surreal grandeur. The image is so familiar as to leave an art reviewer wordless. Even the chirping children were momentarily hushed. Stuart, who by 1796 had moved his studio from fever-ridden Philadelphia to exurban Germantown, painted the President from the life three times. The first portrait, the so-called Vaughan, depicted Washington in three-quarters view, showing the right side of his face; that original has disappeared, and the early replica most resembling it (it is speculated) hangs in the Frick, which does not loan but which allowed a digitized reproduction of it to hang on view. Four other collections did loan the Met copies executed at least in part by Stuart. His belief that there was a market for paintings of George Washington was well founded, and all in all he painted (and sold) at least a hundred of them.
The image he most favored was the so-called Athenaeum version (1796), commissioned by Martha Washington to hang in Mount Vernon along with her own portrait; but Stuart never finished them or parted, despite Martha’s pleas, with the bodiless heads he had captured. On his death, the canvases went to the Boston Athenaeum, which in recent years has agreed to share them with the National Portrait Gallery. Stuart copied this head of Washington over and over, and seven versions hang along one wall—some pinker than others, some frizzier in the wig, some funnier around the mouth, and one with a linen jabot instead of lace. It is this image that, flipped so the right instead of the left side of the face is favored, was used on the one-dollar bill, where the engraving for some reason looks more like Washington—calmer, steelier, more godlike and validated—than any painting does.
The full-length Landsdowne portrait (1796), displayed in three versions (including the probable original) at the Met, was completed, as was customary, with a stand-in for the body, and Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis complained that the stand-in was fatter than Washington, whose body was “a matchless combination of bone and muscle.” There is certainly a touch of drollery in Washington’s portly, splay-footed stance as he gestures with an open hand as if to say, of creating a nation, “Well, what can you do?” Though Stuart’s Washington has become the nation’s Washington, the three portraits are not among the painter’s liveliest. Washington was a difficult subject; there were his new false teeth (ivory, not wood as tradition has it) and an understandable air of preoccupation. A friend of the artist, Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, later wrote of the President, “When he sat to Stuart, as the latter has often stated, an apathy seemed to seize him, and a vacuity spread over his countenance most appalling to the painter.” Stuart, the story continues, jostled the President into animation by talking about horses; but Washington, like today’s supermodels, wears the blank look that resonates deepest with the public. He is our first, and greatest, supermodel.
After his third presidential sitting in 1796, Stuart still had thirty-two years, and many portraits, to go, as the leg-weary museumgoer will discover. The painter moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., in 1803, before heading to Boston in 1805. There are some gems in the later rooms. More south- erly habitation seems to have warmed him to the fair sex: witness the fetching, fleshy images of Elizabeth Parke Custis Law (1796); Anne Willing Bingham (1797), with her mannish eyebrows and deep décolletage; green-eyed, plaid-becapped Mary Willing Clymer (1797); Elizabeth Corbin Griffin Gatliff (1798), who looks remarkably like Bill Clinton, if Clinton had curly locks; peachy, perky Ann Penington (1805); sultry Sarah McKean, Marquesa de Casa Yrujo (1804); Elizabeth Beltzhoover Mason (1804), that minx, with her cockily uptilted chin; red-haired Marcia Burnes Van Ness (1805); and—a woman with whom Stuart enjoyed some currents of affection and mutual regard—Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton (circa 1800–1802), who stares out enigmatically, enticingly through a loose and even hectic flurry of brushstrokes. She calmly explodes from the canvas, and Stuart’s breezy action painting takes our breath away.
Similarly rough and glamorizing is the portrait of Jerome Bonaparte (1804), who either wandered off or exhausted Stuart’s patience but is splendidly realized nonetheless. As to Jefferson (1805–1807, 1805–1821, 1805), Madison (1804, 1805–1807), and Monroe (1817, 1821), these are the visages of record. The republic was fortunate to have, in its fledgling years, a portrait painter so professionally, so Europeanly adept, yet Yankee enough to peer through the social mien at the inner life behind it.
December 2, 2004