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Gilbert Stuart

December 2023
1min read


by Richard McLanathan; Abrams; 159 pages; $35.00.

He is best known for the unfinished portrait of Washington in which the President seems to be emerging from a bank of cumulus clouds. What the millions of children who first saw it hanging on the classroom wall could not have guessed was that the rosy, powdered, taut-lipped head is as fine an example of the Western art of portrait painting as can be found anywhere. Nor would they have known that it is only one of dozens of similarly brilliant works by the man his contemporaries called the father of American portraiture.

Born in Rhode Island in 1755, trained in England by another formidable American painter, Benjamin West, Stuart first made his mark with a demanding English merchant class and aristocracy. When he returned to the United States after the Revolution (he felt no particular loyalty to either Crown or rebels), he painted a suitably magisterial portrait of Chief Justice John Jay, who introduced Stuart to the President. The Washington commissions put Stuart at the top of his profession overnight—to be painted by Stuart was a sine qua non for every American of wealth or accomplishment for the next thirty years. Only Stuart’s erratic ways of keeping accounts and promises kept him from the financial success that was in his grasp. Nevertheless, we can be grateful for the gallery of faces he left us—Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Jay, Monroe among them and always the versions of Washington that he copied and recopied during his lifetime, as did his daughter Jane after he died in Boston in 1828.

As Stuart grew older, the pace of his commissions barely diminished, and the number of works left incomplete mounted. But the unfinished part only applied to the setting and costume. For Stuart the portrait was the face; picturing the rest was of no interest to him. Once, when told that a sitter’s family was unhappy with the lack of detail in the man’s cravet, he scornfully cried, “What do they think I am, a damned haberdasher?”

This, the first volume in what promises to be a distinguished “Library of American Art,” has a clear, informative text and 101 reproductions. Those in color—more than half—give us the best possible representation of Stuart’s miraculous flesh tones: pink and radiant, they are the closest we will ever come to standing in the living presence of a remarkable generation.

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