George Washington, 1795
Gilbert Stuart (1755 – 1828)
Likely America’s best-known portrait painter, Gilbert Stuart is difficult to track biographically because so many parts of his life have been embellished or cloaked by his biographers who have romanticized the life of this man so associated with the portraits of George Washington. And he also told untrue, embellished stories about himself. Stuart was, in fact, a temperamental, hard-living man who lived way beyond his means, which left him and his family in impoverished circumstances.
He was the son of a snuff-mill owner in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Of Scottish descent, he had the baptismal name of Gilbert Stewart but changed it to the Jacobite spelling, wanting to be associated in name with the royal Stuart family of England.
When the mill failed, the Stewart family moved to Newport, Rhode Island where the young Gilbert took early training from local portraitist Samuel King. In 1769, his early talent for drawing was recognized by Cosmo Alexander, with whom he traveled in the Southern Colonies and then to Edinburgh, Scotland. But Alexander died, and the penniless Stuart had to work his way back to America as a seaman. He completed several portraits of Newport persons including Frances Malbone.
In 1775, on the eve of the Battle of Bunker Hill, he again sailed, this time to London where he worked as a church organist because American colonial artists were not then well received in England. From 1777, he spent five years studying art with expatriate court painter, Benjamin West who taught Stuart many of the skills he acquired in portrait painting, especially the painting of realistic, animated faces–glowing light against dark background– for which he became noted. It was a revival of the style of Rembrandt.
However, it was a full-length portrait of a Scotsman, William Grant, as a skater that made Stuart’s reputation in England when the painting was exhibited in 1782 at the Royal Academy. Later it was mistakenly attributed to Sir Henry Raeburn.
After this success, Stuart had many commissions and was perceived to be in the same league as Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. But he became overwhelmed by debts, and in 1787, went to Dublin, Ireland, where he continued his habit of collecting and quickly spending his portrait fees before completing the work.
In 1792, he returned to America and became the most highly regarded portraitist of his day with nearly everyone in prominence in the government becoming one of his subjects. Always low on money and known for erratic behavior, which some attributed to his genius, he remained ever pursued by his creditors. He is buried in Boston in an unmarked paupers grave.
Matthew Baigell, “Dictionary of American Art”
Docent Files, Phoenix Art Museum
Biography from the Archives of AskART