When the largest exhibition ever of works by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) opens this month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visitors will gain vivid insight into the preeminent portrait artist of the founding fathers and mothers and also into the remarkable individuals who were his subjects.
“Stuart’s relation with his sitters is the focus of this exhibition because that relationship was critical to the outcome of the work,” says Carrie Rebora Barratt, curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Met and cocurator of the exhibition.
“We wanted to know more about who these people were, why they sat for Stuart, what that was like, and what portraiture meant to them, to their society, and, in America, to the new nation,” explains Barratt, who is also manager of the Henry Luce Center for the Study of American Art.
In the early years of the Republic, “Stuart was it,” says Ellen G. Miles, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and cocurator of the exhibition. “A portrait by Stuart was a mark of standing in society. He was enormously talented and enormously complicated.”
Trained—and feted—in England and Ireland for nearly 20 years, the Rhode Island–born Stuart returned to America after the Revolution, in 1793, intending to make his fortune by creating the quintessential portrait of George Washington, the most famous and admired man in the Western world in his day. On Stuart’s second try, in 1796, he achieved the likeness that is replicated in portraits in leading museums, on the $1 bill, and in thousands of copies in statehouses, civic meeting places, and schoolrooms around the United States. The next four presidents (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) eagerly sat for him, as did many members of their cabinets and numerous other leading men and women of the day.
This full-scale show of Gilbert Stuart’s work, the first in nearly 4 decades, presents 92 major paintings, many rarely seen together and some only recently discovered in private collections. The stunning centerpiece is a room displaying 14 portraits of Washington—4 of them full-length renderings on canvases approximately 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Even today, more than 200 years later, they inspire awe.
But while Washington provides the climactic moment of the show, as he did for Stuart’s career, he is by no means the whole story of Stuart’s achievement. The artist lived and worked in seven cities during his lifetime, and the show presents outstanding works from each period—from the relatively primitive Francis Malbone and His Brother Saunders (1774), painted in Newport, Rhode Island, to the 1782 full-length tour de force, The Skater (William Grant), which established Stuart as an original master of the English grand style and made him one of the most sought-after portrait artists in London, to the 1789 portrait Chancellor of Ireland, Lord John Fitzgibbon, painted in Dublin. Stuart had a virtual monopoly on Irish portraiture from 1787 until 1793, when he decided that the real opportunity lay with Washington and the emerging nation that was his home.
Relocating to New York, Stuart worked with more speed and skill than at any other period of his life, painting an extraordinary range of prominent people as he pursued the connections he needed to gain a sitting with Washington.
When the opportunity came, early in 1795, he moved to Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, and eventually had three sittings with Washington, producing three different and highly acclaimed images that were copied repeatedly—by Stuart himself and by others—for the rest of his life. As the foremost paintings of the Father of His Country, the original works quickly gained enormous prestige and value. But thanks to Stuart’s sloppy record keeping, even he couldn’t keep track of them. Only in the last two decades has the order of their creation been determined and the authenticity of various versions firmly established. The exhibition benefits from that scholarship (see sidebar).
When the government moved to Washington, D.C., Stuart followed and continued to paint the country’s leaders, even after he settled in his last home, in Roxbury, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. Stuart was known for his delicate use of color, graceful poses, inimitable skin tones, and for the strong likenesses of his sitters. But mere likeness never satisfied him. His goal was the essential spirit of the individual.
Testifying to his success, the walls of the Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston rooms in the exhibition are populated with a surprising range of people. Here we find poet Sarah Apthorp Morton, known as the American Sappho, gracefully adjusting a mantilla over her head (1802), and retired general Henry Knox (ca. 1805), Washington’s close friend and adviser. Here are the portraits of the serenely lighthearted Dolley Madison (1804) and her president-husband, James (1805), together again after more than a century apart. Perhaps the show’s most spectacular discoveries are the 1804 portrait of Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, and the triple view of his sparkling new wife, Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore, both paintings emerging from private collections for the first time.
John Adams, who found Stuart’s conversation endlessly entertaining, sat for him in 1815 and 1821. In 1826, when they were both old men, Stuart finally achieved the image that fixed the soul of the patriot.
“Stuart never repeated himself,” says Barratt. “In American portraiture, no one else was re-creating the person at this level.” Stuart spent his last two decades in Boston, where he continued to be admired and patronized, despite his notorious crankiness and unpredictable delays. The works of this period maintain his high standard.
Artists sought Stuart’s advice; after his death a group of prominent artists drew up a resolution naming him the father of American portraiture. The current exhibition demonstrates how much he deserved their admiration and respect.
After closing at the Metropolitan on January 16, 2005, the exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (March 27–July 31, 2005).
Bonnie Barrett Stretch is a contributing editor of ARTnews.