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Gilbert Stuart

October 21, 2004 - January 16, 2005


Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), the most successful and resourceful portraitist of America's early national period, is best remembered today for his many incisive likenesses of George Washington. This fall, in the artist's first retrospective in nearly four decades, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will show nearly 100 exceptional works that reveal his talent for capturing both the appearance and the character of his many prominent clients. Representing all periods of Stuart's long career and featuring works drawn from private collections and museums in America and Britain, Gilbert Stuart opens on October 21, 2004.

A highlight of the exhibition will be the display in a single room of 14 of Stuart's Washington portraits, including the original "Vaughan" likeness (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), the unfinished "Athenaeum" version (co-owned by the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and the celebrated "Lansdowne" portrait of 1796, recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The chronological arrangement of the exhibition follows Stuart's career from its start in his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, to its end some five decades later in Boston, Massachusetts. Within the display, a gallery will be devoted to works painted in each of the seven cities -- Newport, London, Dublin, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston -- in which the artist practiced his trade and attracted a clientele. In each location, the conditions for being a portrait painter differed, and Stuart faced varying expectations and demands because of his own growing reputation, his ambitions, and competing painters.

The son of a Scottish emigré who settled near Newport, Rhode Island, Gilbert Stuart demonstrated a precocious artistic talent coupled with an irreverent manner and somewhat rebellious spirit. He honed his skills on a trip to Edinburgh in 1772-73 and a visit to Boston in 1774, and, upon his return to Newport, attracted the local elite, many of them business associates of his father. The first signs of his technical skill are apparent in relatively primitive works fashioned according to the model of contemporary Scottish portraiture, such as the ambitious 1774 double portrait of Francis Malbone and his brother Saunders, painted when the artist was not yet 20 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). His portrait of his close friend, Benjamin Waterhouse (Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport) from the next year shows vast improvement, and this accomplishment led him to seek more training abroad.

In 1777, Stuart traveled to London to seek his fortune. He soon secured a position as an assistant to another American who had relocated to London -- the renowned artist Benjamin West (1738-1820), historical painter to King George III. Stuart benefited greatly from this relationship and, with the 1782 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts of his boldly original and highly acclaimed full-length portrait The Skater (William Grant of Congalton) (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), the young American became one of the most sought-after painters in Britain. He was also on good terms with the Academy's president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (portrait on loan from National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), who recommended Stuart for many jobs, and the print seller John Boydell, who, in 1785, ordered from Stuart 15 portraits of contemporary artists, six of which will be shown in the exhibition.

After a decade in London, Stuart's reputation grew along with his debts. To escape his creditors, he moved to the comparatively small city of Dublin, executing grand commissions with little competition, and continuing to master the techniques of Grand Manner portraiture. Among his most important works from the period is the 1789 portrait of the newly appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland, John Fitzgibbon (The Cleveland Museum of Art), whose aloof and regal pose Stuart would find useful later in his career. His Irish clients -- who received him as a British painter, and commissioned paintings on the grand scale they expected from one trained in London -- may have been surprised to learn of Stuart's American roots when he spoke of returning to his native soil to paint the new president of the United States.

In 1793, the artist sailed for New York, where he would make the proper connections to gain a sitting with President George Washington. He received numerous commissions, which he completed with great speed and skill, proving himself worthy of painting the leader of country. Among his distinguished clients were Josef de Jáudenes y Nebot, the Spanish chargé d'affaires to the United States, and his new bride Matilda Stoughton de Jáudenes, the daughter of the wealthy American diplomat John Stoughton, both of whose highly ornamented portraits he painted in 1794 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Ultimately, through his friend, the diplomat John Jay ­ whose portrait he also painted (private collection) -- the necessary introductions were made and, assured of sittings with George Washington, Stuart moved to Philadelphia -- at that time, the nation's capital.

Stuart was granted three sittings with Washington in 1795-96, bringing the skills honed in Britain to bear on his work. In these paintings, he satisfied the need in America for lasting images of its early national leaders created in an international language of portraiture. Stuart created three portrait types for the president: a bust-length facing left (the so-called Vaughan image), another facing right (the Athenaeum version) and a full-length composition (the Lansdowne). The exhibition brings together several of each type, including four full-lengths. These grand paintings have never before been seen side by side. The display will engage viewers by showing the variations in Stuart's signature work, which Stuart continued to replicate for the next 30 years, and will explain the genesis of the portrait that most know so well as the face on the United States one-dollar bill.

Stuart lived in Philadelphia until 1803, and, in addition to working with Washington, painted many of the city's elite. A tour-de-force, from around 1802, shows Mrs. Perez Morton (Worcester Art Museum), the so-called American Sappho, a poetess and great beauty who inspired one of Stuart's most captivating works. He followed the government to Washington, D.C., where he continued to paint the country's leaders. A number of his sitters came from the diplomatic corps, among them Jerome Bonaparte and his stunning wife, Elizabeth Patterson, painted just after their marriage (both, private collections). Stuart's career spanned the terms of the first five presidents and, while in Washington, he received sittings with John and Abigail Adams ­ pictures that consumed him for more than a decade as he pondered how to best portray this captivating couple ­ and with Thomas Jefferson, the handsome and intelligent third president. Stuart also painted James Monroe (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) as well as James Madison (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) and First Lady Dolley Madison (The White House) -- a pair of pictures that will be shown together in the exhibition for the first time in more than a century.

Stuart spent his last two decades in Boston, where patrons admired his work, despite unpredictable delays and crankiness, which increased in Stuart's old age. The work never decreased in expression or skill. His portrait of retired general Henry Knox (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) was a monumental success, while his delicate likeness of the young Lydia Smith on the eve of her marriage (private collection) is a portrayal of great sensitivity. At a time when portraits were used in the United States to celebrate national achievement and public heroes as well as the self-aware experience of private individuals, Stuart raised the bar on portrait painting for his sitters, his colleagues, and his students.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue, which will be published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, The book will be available in the Museum's book shops.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a variety of educational programs will be scheduled. These will include activities for teachers and families, lectures and gallery talks for general visitors, and a symposium.

The exhibition has been organized by Carrie Rebora Barratt, Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture and Manager of The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Ellen G. Miles, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw, Exhibition Designer; graphics are by Emil Micha, Senior Graphic Design Manager; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Rich Lichte, Lighting Designers, all of the Museum's Design Department.

A complementary exhibition George Washington: Man, Myth, Monument - Images from the Metropolitan will feature some four dozen works in all media depicting the United States' first president and will be on view in the Museum's American Wing until February 27, 2005.

After its showing at the Metropolitan, Gilbert Stuart will be on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (March 27 - July 31, 2005).


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