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George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) at The Frick Collection

 

The celebrated painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) is on view again in early 2002 for the first time in a year in a presentation in The Frick Collection's Cabinet Room. One of the early replicas of Gilbert Stuart's first life portrait of the president, it is instantly recognizable to visitors. It is also the only painting of an American by an American artist in The Frick Collection, a collection of mainly European masterpieces. Of the portraits Stuart created of prominent figures of his time, including the first five American presidents, none attained the renown of the three he painted from life of George Washington and those he replicated on order throughout his later career. Capturing the character of the simply dressed President in a nearly half-length portrait with an aloof but benevolent expression, Stuart utilized a lively style that was new in America -- a combination of fine tonalities and loose brushwork, with an eye for realistic detail -- resulting in his reputation as one of the leading portraitists of his day. Purchased by Henry Clay Frick in 1918, the portrait hung in his private business office in the mansion at 1 East Seventieth Street that is now the celebrated museum. Frick commissioned three copies of it from a local artist, possibly for his offices in Pittsburgh and New York, a measure of his esteem of the work. (left: Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), George Washington, 1795-96, oil on canvas, 29 1/4 x 24 inches, COPYRIGHT THE FRICK COLLECTION, NEW YORK, Photograph: Richard di Liberto)

Born in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, Gilbert Stuart grew up in Newport, where his father, a Scots immigrant, operated a snuff mill. After early training in Newport, Stuart moved to London in 1775 and worked as a student of and later assistant to Benjamin West, eventually setting up his own portrait practice. In England he adopted the style of his notable contemporaries, such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney, whose works are also represented in The Frick Collection. Having achieved success abroad, Stuart returned to the United States in 1793, determined to paint the country's foremost citizen in order to gain prominence at home. With a letter of introduction from Chief Justice John Jay, he obtained a sitting with the President in 1795 in Philadelphia, then the capital of the country. George Washington was sixty-three years old and in his second term.

With the portrait an instant success, some thirty requests for replicas followed. After completing about ten replicas, Stuart became dissatisfied with the original portrait from life and rubbed it out. In the following year, he made two other portraits from life of Washington, each of which was frequently replicated. The Frick Collection painting is one of the early replicas of Stuart's first life portrait, showing the President in a reddish-brown coat set against a brilliant green curtain with a view of sky behind. It belongs to the group known as the "Vaughan type," as it is thought to be one of two copies painted by the artist for the Philadelphia merchant John Vaughan.

rev. 8/12/02

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