Early American painter Gilbert Stuart set the standard against which portraits are still measured though he never finished his most famous work. He painted more than 1,000 portraits of the new country’s leaders, including five presidents, governors, ministers, educators, diplomats, merchants, military heroes, judges and ministers.
Gilbert Stuart was born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island Colony on Dec. 2, 1755 and baptized in the Old Narragansett Church. His father , Gilbert Stewart, was a Scottish immigrant who worked in the first snuff mill in America. His mother, Elizabeth Anthony Stewart, belonged to a prominent Middletown, R.I., family that owned large tracts of land. When Gilbert was six, the family moved to Newport, R.I., where his father ran a shop that advertised ‘Continues to Make and Sell, Superfine Flour of Mustard.’
Young Gilbert Stuart’s artistic talent emerged at a young age. He was tutored by visitng Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander. At 14 he painted a famous portrait, Dr. Hunter’s Spaniels, which now hangs in the Hunter House Mansion in Newport. At 16 he moved to Scotland with Alexander to pursue his studies, but Alexander died and Stuart couldn’t make a living. He returned to Newport as a crew member on a collier headed for Nova Scotia. He had no luck back in Rhode Island and moved to England, where he became a protégé of Benjamin West.
At 26, Stuart painted his breakthrough portrait, The Skater, a full-length portrait of William Grant.
Though his paintings commanded some of the highest prices in England, he was careless with money and came close to debtors’ prison. He moved to New York City in 1793 and to Philadelphia two years later. There he painted many of the important people of the day. He never finished his most famous painting of George Washington, known as The Athenaeum, but sold 130 copies of it for $100 each. The painting has appeared on dollar bills for more than a century.
A copy of another famous painting of Washington, the Lansdowne portrait, hung in the White House until the British advanced on the capital during the War of 1812. First Lady Dolley Madison claimed to have rescued it. Other accounts have the doorman and the gardener removing the portrait.
Some of the people he immortalized in paint and canvas are John and Abigail Adams, King Louis XVI, James Madison, James Monroe, John Jacob Astor, King George III, Horatio Gates and Thomas Jefferson. He was remarkable for painting without sketching his subject first. His philosophy was to load his pictures with color, but keep the colors separate, “No blending, tis destruction to clear & bea[u]tiful effect,” he told his pupils.
Stuart moved to Washington in 1803 and to Boston in 1805, where he lived on Devonshire Street. He died in 1828, leaving his wife and daughters so impoverished they couldn’t afford a gravesite. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Old South Burying Ground.