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Two American Master Portrait Painters



( Article orginally published October 1945 )

There is probably very little divergence from the opinion that the two leading early American portrait painters were John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart. It is rather a queer coincidence that they went to England within a year of each other- Copley in 1774 and Stuart in 1775. What awaited them in London was entirely different. The art of Copley, who was already a finished painter before he left and had developed a highly individual style, deteriorate after his contact with European art. He thought that he was improving himself greatly when he modelled his work on Gainsborough and Reynolds, Beechey and Hoppner, but the sad result was that he became only a second rate English painter. Stuart's experience was entirely different. He was a very indifferent painter when he left Newport and had had very little practice or teaching. He possessed however, a great deal of native talent, and this talent developed under the guidance of Benjamin West and under the same influences which destroyed Copley. London unmade Copley and made Stuart. However, the work of Copley before he left his native Boston was so distinguished that to many he is the leading American master of portraiture. He was born in or near Boston, July 3, 1738. His parents were of English birth and had only recently arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His father went on to the West Indies where he died shortly after the birth of his son. The widow maintained a tobacco shop on Long Wharf in Boston and it was there that the boy spent his earliest years.

When he was ten years old the family moved to Lindell's Row, for the widow Copley then married the distinguished engraver, Peter Pelham, who is known for his portrait mezzotints of many Boston divines. Peter Pelhaur had learned the art of engraving in England and he was a competent craftsman but there was not enough demand for engraving in the Colony to support him and his family and for that reason he had to conduct a school where, according to his advertisement, "dancing, writing, reading, painting and needlework" were taught. He taught his young stepson how to handle a pencil of not the engravers' tools, for it seemed that young Copley, although he had already discovered his own interest in drawing, never desired to become an engraver. Pelham engraved a number of portraits by the painter John Smibert who had been living in Boston since 1732. Smibert also added to the boy's instruction, but as he died in 1751, and as Pelham died in the same year, the young student was soon left on his own resources. For one brief year, 1748-49, Robert Feke of Newport was painting the worthies of Boston but it is not likely that he gave any actual instruction to Copley. It was the fine paintings which he left hanging in Boston homes which set an example for him. He may have learned a little from Joseph Greenwood, but his next important contact was with Blackburn, who came to Boston in 1754. Cohley saw that Blackburn knew very much more about composition than he did and did not hesitate to copy from him, sometimes almost exactly.

By the time Copley was nineteen it was recognized that he could paint a very creditable portrait and he was even invited to go to Nova Scotia where he was told he would not lack for commissions. By the time he was twenty-five he had all the work he could ask for in Boston. He was a hard worker and being naturally a realist he made every effort to paint exactly what was before him. Copley felt the limitations of colonial life and the isolation of representing the field of art quite alone in the Puritan capital. He longed for London and used to study the English prints very eagerly to see how Reynolds and Gainsborough handled the same problems he was struggling with. In 1766 he did what was for him a very daring thing. He sent a painting, "The Boy with a Squirrel", over to an exhibition of the Society of Artists in London. He consigned his creation to Captain Bruce and immediately after it had left began to have serious qualms about its reception in England. To his amazement it was extremely well received and resulted in his entering into a long correspondence with Benjamin West, the American artist who was well established in London and eventually became president of the Royal Academy. "The Boy with a Squirrel" was a portrait of his half-brother, Henry i'elham, and today is in the Worcester Art Museum. It is a delightful work and shows that Copley was already a master of realism, expressed in a very sensitive style. West urged him strongly to come to London and for the next few years Copley was continually on the point of leaving Boston but in the meantime his marriage with the daughter of Richard Clarke, a wealthy Tory. made. him postpone his journey. Furthermore, he was receiving a great many commissions to paint portraits, not only in Boston but in New York and Philadelphia.

When he came back to Boston from the latter city it was to find himself involved in the political turmoil which led up to the actual outbreak of the Revolution. He himself was a Whig, and his wife's family were Tories. He had many friends among the Tory merchants and was also a friend of Hancock and Adams. He had an extreme dislike of violence and worked actively to bring about an understanding between the two parties. He was actually their go-between on many occasions and when the Tories withdrew in fear for their safety to Castle William, he carried messages from them to the Whig leaders. Sadly he saw his efforts to bring about a working compromise fail. It was not long after the Boston Tea Party that he left Boston forever, although at the time he did not know that actual hostilities were so near. He left his wife and children in Boston and sailed for London in 1774. At first he traveled for a time in Italy and then returned to take tip his residence in London where for a number of years he enjoyed considerable prestige. This dwindled however, toward the end of his life and he ended his days in neglect.

Compared to Copley's somewhat hard manner, the style of Gilbert Stuart is seen to possess a great deal of ease and sophistication. This is represented not only in the works of the English period, represented by the Portrait of - Henry Lambert from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, but also by the later work in America, as seen in the Portrait o f George Washington at the Yale University Art Gallery. Gilbert Stuart was born in Rhode Island. His father, also named Gilbert Stuart, was a Scotch millwright who came over to build a mill for the manufacture of snuff, near 1Varrangansett. In his later days Stuart, who was very fond of snuff taking, explained this habit by saying that he was born in a snuff mill, and this happened to be literally true as the family lived in the upper story of the mill. He was born December 3, 1775, when his father suffered financial reverses, the family moved to Newport. They were in straitened circumstances but young Gilbert was a high-spirited child who was very fond of playing pranks and it is doubtful that his modest surroundings depressed him very much. He was a friend of Benjamin Waterhouse, who grew up to become a physician and introduced vaccination into America. Waterhouse went to London in 1774. Stuart was determined to join his friend and borrowed money to make the trop the next year. He already knew he wanted to be a painter and had had some instruction from Samuel King and also from the Scotch painter, Cosmo Alexander, who was in Newport in 1768. Alexander took Stuart with him when he went back to Scotland but as he died shortly after the boy was left destitute there for several years. After a great deal of hardship, he finally worked his way back as a sailor and returned to Newport looking so like a tramp that it took several weeks before he could be clothed well enough to go on the street. This was a very bitter period for him but his naturally light-hearted temperament reasserted itself. When he borrowed money to go to London, he had just barely enough to get there and trusted on meeting Waterhouse shortly after his arrival. Unfortunately Waterhouse was at p:dinburg and poor Stuart had many months living a hand to mouth existence. He had some talent in organ playing and earned a little money as an organist for a church. He painted to some extent but did not make much progress. It was several years before he finally appealed to West to take hint into his studio and at once West recognized what an extraordinary talent the young man possessed. Under the influence of West his art lost all of the awkwardness shown in his early works. He had an extraordinary talent for catching a likeness and was extremely successful in painting heads. He did not like full-length figures and his critics used to say that he never learned to draw. However, if he could not draw he knew how to model and also he was a master of flesh tints. He made an extraordinary success in London and all would have been well had he not been such a spendthrift. He was painting portraits of dukes and peers, ladies of fashion, actors, and military heroes, and received thirty guineas a portrait, which was considered excellent. His old spendthrift qualities reasserted themselves and sad to relate he frequently saw the inside of the debtors' prison. In 1787 he left London and his debts behind him and went to Dublin where he practically repeated his London experiences but on a larger scale. He was enormously popular for he was a great wit and had acquired the manner of a social favorite. He painted many fine portraits in Ireland, which show his brilliant style at its best, but his funds were always overdrawn. In financial straights he finally decided to return to America and make his fortune painting portraits of George Washington, whose great popularity assured Stuart of many orders. He returned about 1792 but did not find it so easy to gain a sitting with Washington as he thought. Washington despised having his portrait painted and when Stuart finally succeeded in getting a sitting, he looked so stern and disinterested that at first Stuart could make no headway. He finally succeeded however, and while the Stuart Washington's have created a popular image of the president for posterity, it is probable that other likenesses, such as those of Wright, Peale and Savage, are actually more like the subject. But in the popular imagination, Stuart's Washington has reigned supreme.

Stuart mastered an easy graceful style as he advanced in years. His earlier work is very well represented by the Portrait of Henry Lambert here illustrated. This is very much more like the style of Reynolds and Romney, doubtless because it was painted in the same city where these artists worked and at the same time. Just who Henry Lambert was, it is not known but he may have been a naval officer.

After Stuart had painted a number of portraits in Philadelphia, where for a time he was as much in favor with aristocratic Federal society as he had been among the Irish gentry, and in the social world of London, he allowed his eccentricities and bad temper to throw him out of favor, personally, although he never lost the position of the most eminent portrait painter of his day. He went to Boston and continued' to paint many portraits, although those of the Boston period are the least important in regard to his total work. He died there in 1828.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart



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