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Gilbert Stuart

painter of two of the most well-known portraits of George Washington

Gilbert Stuart, self-portrait, 1778

Gilbert Charles Stuart was born at North Kingstown, Rhode Island, on December 3, 1755, and began painting at the age of thirteen. He studied at Newport, Rhode Island, with Cosmo Alexander, and went with him to Scotland, but returned to America after Alexander's death. In 1775 he went to England and became a student of American painter Benjamin West. A successful exhibition of Stuart's works at the Royal Academy led to him establishing his own portrait studio in London in 1782. Although he was kept busy with commissions from some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in England and Scotland, Stuart's extravagant lifestyle kept him almost perpetually in debt and in 1787 he fled to Ireland to escape his creditors. He returned impoverished to America about 1792, hoping to become rich by painting portraits of George Washington.

Stuart established a portrait studio in Philadelphia in 1794. President Washington sat for three different portraits in 1795 and 1796, from which Stuart made dozens of replicas. The "Athenaeum" portrait (below left), a copy of which hangs in thousands of classrooms across the country, was the basis of the portrait still used on the dollar bill. The "Landsdowne" portrait (below right) is an oversize full-length portrait painting that was commissioned for the White House; it was this painting of Washington that Dolley Madison saved when the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. Unlike Charles Willson Peale, who painted realistically, Stuart idealized Washington's features, ignoring the changes in the aging President's appearance.

The Athenaeum portrait the Landsdowne portrait

Stuart went on to paint portraits of some of the most well-known and influential Americans of his day, including Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. He even did a portrait of his former teacher Benjamin West. As he had in England, Stuart made a very good living off of the commissions he earned for each portrait, as well as from selling replicas of them. However, he also continued the extravagant lifestyle which had led to his having to leave England. He also grew increasingly eccentric, often turning down commissions because he refused to paint people with dull faces and leaving many paintings unfinished.

Gilbert Stuart moved to Boston in 1805, and died there virtually penniless on July 9, 1828.

Site of Interest

Gilbert Stuart Museum

See Also

George Washington
Dolley Madison
War of 1812
Charles Willson Peale
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
John Quincy Adams

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The Robinson Library >> Painting >> United States

This page was last updated on 08/27/2018.