Washington Posed Here: Gilbert Stuart

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A few months ago, reader Bob requested a post on Gilbert Stuart (baptized Gilbert Stewart). Since tomorrow is the 180th anniversary of his death and Friday was Independence Day, the time is right to feature this American artist best known for his iconic portraits of George Washington.

1. Although Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) was a patriot, his family were loyalists who fled to Nova Scotia at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Surprisingly, Stuart headed to England around the same time, in 1775, where he was taken into the studio of Benjamin West, history painter to King George III. Stuart remained in England for 23 years and then moved on to Ireland for several years.

2. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Stuart was the go-to portraitist for high society and politicians. His portraits of more than 1,000 people include portraits of the first 6 U.S. presidents, many of which are now reproduced in history textbooks. George Washington sat for Stuart on three occasions: the first produced the Vaughan type portraits (left), known today only through replicas; the second produced "The Athanaeum" (middle), which was never completed; and the final produced the famed "Lansdowne Portrait" (right).

3. The "Athanaeum" portrait was intended to be a portrait of both George and Martha Washington, but Stuart only ever finished George's face on the original. That face has graced the U.S. $1 bill for the past century. With his daughters, Stuart painted some 130 reproductions of "The Athanaeum," 70 of which sold for $100 each. The "Lansdowne Portrait" was also frequently reproduced, though Stuart himself only painted 12 versions; an engraving and reproductions were made without his permission, and much to his consternation. A "Lansdowne" was rescued by Dolly Madison from the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.

4.Stuart was extremely successful during his lifetime. While living in England, the prices of his paintings were only exceeded by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, who were established and renowned English artists. Upon his return to America, he remarked, "In England my efforts were compared with those of Van Dyck, Titian, and other great painters—but here! They compare them with the works of the Almighty!" Yet for all the fame and success, he was constantly on the verge of debt and was even jailed briefly in Ireland when he fell into debt. It is said that he was "habitually neglectful of finances," but his brood of five sons and seven daughters surely didn't help matters!

5. When Stuart died, his family was left in debt from which they were unable to recover for at least 10 years. They couldn't afford a grave site, so Stuart was buried in an unmarked grave. When they were in better finances, they planned to move Stuart to a family plot in Newport, RI, but couldn't remember the location of his body, and thus he wasn't moved.

Larger versions of the "Vaughan," "Athanaeum," and "Lansdowne" are available.

Fans should check out Gilbert Stuart's birthplace and museum; the NGA's online resources from a Stuart exhibition; and his ARC gallery.

Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:
America's Presidents, feat. Gilbert Stuart (Washington, DC: permanent)
Inspiring Impressionism, feat. Edgar Degas & Paul Cézanne (Seattle: through September 21, 2008)
The Power of Place, feat. Maxfield Parrish (Vermont: through Oct. 26, 2008)

"Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with suggestions of artists or details on current exhibitions.

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July 8, 2008 - 7:12am
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