Gilbert Stuart Biography1755-1828
American Romantic Painter
Born in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, he grew up in Newport and was tutored by Cosmo Alexander, a Scottish painter. Stuart moved to Scotland with Alexander in 1771 to finish his studies. His mentor died in Edinburgh the following year. Attempting briefly and without success to earn a living as a painter, he returned to Newport in 1773.
Stuart's prospects as a portraitist were jeopardized by the onset of the American Revolution and its social disruptions. Following the example set by John Singleton Copley, Stuart departed for England in 1775. Unsuccessful at first in pursuit of his vocation, he then became a protege of Benjamin West, with whom he studied for the next six years. The relationship was a beneficial one, with Stuart exhibiting at the Royal Academy as early as 1777.
By 1782 Stuart had met with success, largely due to acclaim for "The Skater," a portrait of William Grant. At one point the prices for his pictures were exceeded only by those of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Despite his many commissions, however, Stuart was habitually neglectful of finances and was in danger of being sent to debtors' prison. In 1787 he fled to Ireland, where he painted and accumulated debt with equal vigor.
Stuart returned to the United States in 1793, settling briefly in New York City. In 1795 he moved to Philadelphia, where he opened a studio. It was here that he would gain, not only a foothold in the art world, but lasting fame with pictures of many important Americans of the day. He painted George Washington in a series of iconic portraits, each of them leading in turn to a demand for copies and keeping Stuart busy and highly paid for years. The most familiar of these likenesses, known as the "Athenaeum Head," is currently on the dollar bill. His most celebrated image of Washington is the oversized portrait hanging in the East Room of the White House. During the burning of Washington by British troops in the War of 1812, this picture was saved through the intervention of First Lady Dolley Madison.
In 1803 Stuart opened a studio in Washington, D. C. By the end of his career he had taken the likenesses of over a thousand American political figures. He was praised for the vitality and naturalness of his portraits, and his subjects found his company agreeable. "Speaking generally," said John Adams, "no penance is like having one's picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation." Stuart worked without the aid of sketches, beginning directly upon the canvas.
He had moved to Boston in 1805, continuing in critical acclaim and financial troubles. In 1824 he suffered a stroke; in spite of paralysis and gout, he continued to paint. Stuart died in Boston at the age of 72 and is buried there in the Old South Burial Ground.
At present there is some debate as to the identity of the sitter for one of Stuart's unfinished portraits. In 1878 "John Bill Ricketts, the Circus Rider" was identified by George Washington Riggs, also known as "The President's Banker" and trustee for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., as "Breschard, the Circus Rider" and as ""Breschard" was publicly displayed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1880. In 1970 the National Gallery of Art changed the identification from "Breschard" " to "Ricketts" and to this day the NGA has failed to explain the reason for this identity change. J.E. Stuart, a famous California artist of the later 19th century, is the grandson of Gilbert Stuart.