Gilbert Stuart, a Capturer of Presidents
and Transmitter of History
The New York Times, 22 October 2004
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By Grace Glueck
Oh, that irascible rascal! Gilbert Stuart didn't always finish the portraits he began; and although he charged high fees he sometimes didn't deliver after his subjects had paid. He made good money but ran up debts; he could be erratic and crotchety; he liked to tipple and had a sharp tongue. (Once, after a husband was dissatisfied by a portrait of his wife, he lamented that he had been given a potato but asked to paint a peach.)
Yet Stuart (1755-1828) was justifiably one of the most celebrated portraitists of his age, a penetrating talent who augmented his knowledge of physiognomy by sussing out his subjects in conversation as he worked. He was said to have captured not only their features but a reflection of their souls as well. Wittily playing down his skills, he once replied, when asked his profession, ''I get my bread by making faces.''
Many of the faces he made, or manipulated, were very famous: they included Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John and Abigail Adams, and James and Dolley Madison. To these add the painters Joshua Reynolds, John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull, Washington Allston and others; the fur magnate John Jacob Astor; the American Indian statesman Joseph Brant; the lord chancellor of Ireland John Fitzgibbon; the first chief justice of the United States, John Jay; and the circus owner and performer John Bill Ricketts. Then there were doctors, lawyers, clergymen and countless British and American bluebloods, their wives, children and dogs.
Nearly 100 of these likenesses appear in ''Gilbert Stuart,'' a full-blown retrospective of the artist's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized by Carrie Rebora Barratt, curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Met, and Ellen G. Miles, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
The best-known face of all, of course, was that of George Washington, whose likeness Stuart painted more than 100 times. No fewer than 14 Washingtons by Stuart are handsomely if numbingly displayed in a single gallery at the show. They include the basic three poses that Washington sat for, along with replicas made by Stuart himself.
The Washington story is a quintessential Stuart saga. When the painter, born in Rhode Island during the Colonial period, returned to this country after 16 years in England and Ireland, he was focused on Washington portraits. He knew that European interest was high for likenesses of the first president of the United States, and he already had several commissions from would-be buyers. In November 1794, armed with a letter of introduction from John Jay, a New York acquaintance, he went to Philadelphia, then the seat of the federal government, expressly to paint the president.
The product of the very first sitting was apparently destroyed by Stuart, who was dissatisfied with it. An early replica here, made by the artist himself and now owned by the National Gallery of Art, is known as the Vaughn portrait, for John Vaughn, a Philadelphia merchant, who was on a list Stuart drew up of 32 ''gentlemen'' who were to have copies. It is a head-and-shoulders image of Washington clad in a simple white ruffled shirt and black velvet coat. His hair is powdered, and his bluff, roseate face, turned slightly to the viewer's right, wears an expression of calm dignity.
Stuart apparently had trouble with the taciturn Washington, a man who kept his thoughts to himself so much that his outward expression tended toward vacuity. The artist finally got him to loosen up by telling old jokes and talking horses, a subject to which the ex-general eagerly responded.
In 1796, Martha Washington commissioned a pair of portraits, of herself and her husband, to add to the family pictures at Mount Vernon. In this second portrait, which Stuart believed to be his best likeness, the president looks directly at the viewer, but his face is turned to the side. This time, however, a new set of false teeth caused considerable distortion to Washington's mouth; they gave Stuart some trouble, too, but he diligently recorded the expression.
With numerous versions made by Stuart himself along with copies by other artists, this was the best-known image of Washington in the 19th century. It is called the Athenaeum portrait, after the version once owned by the Boston Athenaeum. This is the one that graces the $1 bill.
But despite repeated pleas from Martha, the portraits were never finished. And Stuart kept them -- with the assent of Washington, who graciously said he would accept copies -- to make replicas from. Yet he never did deliver the originals or copies to the Washington family, causing a friend to complain, after the president's death, that ''the late General and his lady thought themselves extremely ill-used.''
The Lansdowne portrait of Washington, Stuart's masterpiece, is a theatrical, European-style full-length likeness of the president, painted from life in 1796 for William Petty, the first Marquis of Lansdowne, as a gift from a Philadelphia merchant, William Bingham. Wearing civilian clothes, as opposed to the uniforms depicted in earlier full-length portraits by other artists, Washington is in the pose of a Roman orator, right arm outstretched, a sheathed sword in his other hand, surrounded by allegorical symbols of his office. Although the president apparently sat for the face and hands in a single session, the face was actually taken from the Athenaeum portrait and the too-plump figure was probably posed by stand-ins.
More about Washington and his times can be seen in a complementary exhibition, ''George Washington: Man, Myth, Monument,'' in the museum's American wing. Drawn entirely from the Met's holdings of the period, it includes paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, along with works in glass, ceramics, silver, textiles and wood.
But in the portrait show, the first Stuart retrospective in nearly four decades, there's a lot else to take in. Among other highlights is surely one of the greatest of American portraits, the wonderful ''Catherine Brass Yates'' (1793-94), an exquisite likeness of a middle-aged woman elegantly plying a needle as her long narrow face regards the viewer with a cool, poised stare. Her silvery gown and bonnet are rendered with the most polished of painting techniques.
Then there are Stuart's six portraits of artists and engravers (1783-86) commissioned by the London entrepreneur, print publisher and patron of the arts John Boydell. Outstanding in this group is Stuart's portrait of his mentor in London, the American-born painter Benjamin West. Wearing a slightly disdainful expression of self-satisfaction, West poses holding a Bible, in a muted green coat with ruffled white shirt. Dimly seen in the background is a painting of Moses receiving the Laws, a reference to a cycle of 36 Biblical pictures commissioned from West by King George III for a royal chapel at Windsor Castle, a vast undertaking on which Stuart worked.
For me, Stuart's greatest work is ''The Skater (William Grant),'' painted in 1782. A stunning full-length figure of a man performing a graceful maneuver on the ice, it is a portrait of an acquaintance from Stuart's London days, a barrister who shared the artist's Scottish heritage.
Dressed in fashionable black and wearing a full-brimmed black hat known as a wide-awake, Grant does a tight roll, its pattern visible on the ice. His arms are crossed on his chest and there is a genial expression on his face as he glides easily through the motions in dancelike elegance. The portrait, unusual in that it depicts an athletic exploit, pays homage to West, who, along with Stuart, was a fine skater, which Grant was not. Mysterious and haunting, it still has a liberating air that seems to extol the individual as master of his fate.
Happily, for those who tend to think of Stuart mainly as a maker of Washington clichés, this show reveals, for the first time in a generation, the painter's bountiful range. No doubt about it, he was and remains one of our greatest American painters.
© 2004 The New York Times
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