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Gilbert Stuart - 1755-1828

( Originally Published 1906 )


GILBERT STUART was born on December 3, 1755. The place of his birth, now called Hammond Mills, is near North Kingston, Rhode Island. There his father, Gilbert Stuart the elder, a native of Perth, Scot-land, had built, in company with a fellow-countryman, Dr. Thomas Moffatt, a mill for the manufacture of snuff, an article which was at that time greatly in demand in the colonies and only to be obtained from Scotland. At first all went well with the business, and in course of time Stuart the elder married and brought his bride, Elizabeth Anthony, the beautiful daughter of a farmer of large property living near Newport, to the house which he had built connected with the snuff-mill. This house, with its quaint gambrel-roof and low doorway, still stands beside the waters of Petaquamscott Pond. There the young couple lived happily and with the utmost simplicity, and there three children were born to them, of whom the youngest, Gilbert, is the subject of this sketch.

When four months old the child was carried to St. Paul's Church, Narragansett, and there baptized. The event is entered in the records of the church as follows: —

"April 11th, 1756, being Palm Sunday, Dr. McSparrow read prayers, and baptized a child named Gilbert Stewart, son of Gilbert Stewart the snuff-grinder —sureties, the Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin Mumford, and Mrs. Hannah Mumford."

It is generally supposed that the manner here given of spelling the family name was owing to the carelessness of the clerk who made the entry, but, as a matter of fact, signatures of the snuff-grinder that have come down to us show that he himself spelled his name in this way. Another thing to be noted in this baptismal record is that the painter's name, frequently written Gilbert Charles Stuart, is entered simply as Gilbert Stuart, and if, as tradition has it, the Charles was later inserted because of his father's loyalty to "bonnie Prince Charlie," Stuart himself did not long retain it.

Gilbert Stuart's earliest years were passed in the place of his birth, but the snuff mill not showing the hoped-for profits, and Mrs. Stuart coming into possession of a small property, it was deemed advisable when he was still very young to move to Newport, where he could have the benefit of the good education afforded by the parochial school there kept by the Rev. George Bissett, assistant minister of Trinity Church. Under his guidance the boy made excellent progress, but it was no easy task for him to devote his thoughts to study. His spirits were too high and his love of play too strong. Writing many years later of this period in his life, his daughter says: "Young Stuart was at the very head and front of mischief of every kind, but a great favorite with all his schoolfellows—a sort of master-spirit, his companions willingly yielding him the lead on every occasion." From one of his schoolmates and closest friends, Dr. Waterhouse, we learn that he was "a very capable and self-willed boy, who was indulged in everything, being an only son, handsome and forward and habituated at home to have his own way with little or no control from his easy, good-natured father."

Even at this early stage of his career Stuart had given evidence of talent in the line in which he afterwards became famous. At thirteen he had made some drawings admirable for so young a draftsman. At about this time too he painted his first picture in oils, a pair of Spanish dogs belonging to Dr. William Hunter of Newport, and when fourteen he executed what are said to be his earliest portraits, those of John Banister and Mrs. Christian Banister, now in the Redwood Library, Newport.

Stuart's first teacher in art was Cosmo Alexander, a Scotchman who spent some few years in the colonies, and upon his return to Scotland in 1772 persuaded his pupil, then in his eighteenth year, to accompany him, promising him advantages in art not to be obtained at that day in America.

Unfortunately, soon after reaching Edinburgh Alexander died, leaving Stuart to the care, not, as is usually stated, of Sir George Chambers, "who quickly followed Alexander to the grave," but probably to a friend and relative of Alexander's, Sir George Chalmers. Whether this new guardian was unmindful of young Stuart's welfare, or was unable to lend him a helping hand, is not known; all that we do know is that Stuart, who, with his characteristic dislike of dwelling on disagreeable subjects, could never be induced to talk about this experience, after an absence of two years returned to America penniless and in rags, having worked his passage home in a collier by way of Nova Scotia.

He now set to work in good earnest to supply by hard labor his lack of knowledge of art, of which during his sojourn in Scotland he had become fully conscious. Together with his friend Waterhouse, he hired a "strong-muscled blacksmith" to pose as a model, and that his progress was rapid and his ability marked is shown by the prompt appreciation his works met with. A portrait of his grandmother, who had died when he was a child of ten or twelve, painted from memory, was so excellent a likeness that her son, his mother's brother, Captain Joseph Anthony, commissioned the promising young artist to paint his portrait as well as portraits of his wife and children. This led to other orders, and he was soon employed by some of the wealthy Jewish families who then lived in Newport.

Stuart's success is the more remarkable when we consider the troubled condition of the country at that time. The colonies were growing daily more hostile to the mother-country, party feeling ran high, and war, that worst of enemies to art and art-patronage, seemed imminent. When at length hostilities broke out at Lexington, presaging the complete rupture so soon to follow between Great Britain and the American cOlonies, Stuart, seeing but small chance of advancement in his art at home, embarked, on June 16, 1775, the day before the Battle of Bunker Hill, for England, where his friend Water-house had but lately gone, and where he felt sure of finding surroundings more congenial to his tastes—above all, where he could have what was held by all young artists of that day in America to be of inestimable value: the advantage of studying under the guidance of Benjamin West, then living in London.

Stuart reached London in September, 1775. His friend Waterhouse was in Edinburgh at the-time, and he found himself poor and alone in the metropolis. Most unexpectedly he happened upon a means of support. One day as he passed a church in Foster Lane he heard through the open doorway the strains of an organ. To Stuart, who was not only a lover of music, but himself a musician of some prOficiency, this was enough. Carefully avoiding the pew-woman, whose fee of a penny he was unable to pay, he stepped into the building, where he discovered that a trial of candidates for the position of organist was being held. He at once asked if he, a stranger, might enter the competition. His request was granted, with the result that he was engaged as organist of the church at a salary of thirty pounds a year. This modest sum enabled him to live, and he now turned his attention to his painting; but in a desultory sort of way, for such were the caprices of his genius that even when poverty stared him in the face he let his opportunities slip and painted only when the fancy seized him.

When Dr. Waterhouse returned to London he found Stuart in lodgings so far from those which he himself occupied, near a prominent hospital where he was pursuing his medical studies, that it was arranged that Stuart should remove to a location permitting of a daily meeting between the two friends. Moreover, with the improvident painter close at hand Waterhouse could more easily see that he was not in arrears with either his landlord or washerwoman — a state of affairs only too cOmmon with Stuart.

Through the kindness of this same friend a few orders for portraits were given the artist. Stuart, however, worked but fitfully, beginning some pOrtraits only to leave them half finished, while others were nOt even started. No wonder that he continued poor and in debt, although according to Dr. Water-hOuse he himself handed over tO him twO thirds of his Own allOwance of pocket-money, "and more than once the other third." And yet nothing could weaken the bond of affection between the two young men. "Stuart through-out his life," writes Mr. Samuel Isham, "was recognized as exempt from the ordinary obligations of life; he borrowed and did not pay, he promised and did not perform. He was improvident when providence was a duty, and yet with it all so gay, so brilliant, so talented, with a so-ingratiating personal charm that he was lOved like a child, and those who suffered most by his faults strove hardest to find some excuse for them."

All this time Stuart had never been introduced to Benjamin West, to profit by whose instructiOn had been the express object of his crossing the ocean. This delay is the more unaccountable as it is well known that West's doors were open to all, and especially to Americans. Waterhouse had been introduced to the celebrated historical painter, and says that he "called upon Mr. West and laid Open to him his (Stuart's) situation, when that worthy man saw into it at once, and sent him three or four guineas, and two days afterwards he sent his servant into the city to ask Mr. Stuart to come to him, when he emplOyed him in copying." AnOther and more probable version of Stuart's meeting with West is given by Sully, the painter, who relates that Mr. Wharton, an old friend of West's, recounted to him in Philadelphia that when dining one day with West in London, together with several other Americans, a servant announced a person as wanting to speak to the host.

"`I am engaged,' said West; but after a pause he added, `Who is he ?' `He says, sir, that he is from America.' That was enough. West left the table immediately, and on returning said, `Wharton, there is a young man in the next room who says he is known in our city; go you and see what you can make of him.' I went Out and saw a handsOme youth in a fashionable greatcoat, and I at once told him that I was sent to see what I could make of him. `You are known in Philadelphia ?"Yes, sir.' `Your name is Stuart ?' `Yes.' `Have you no letters for Mr. West ?' `No, sir.' ` Who do you know in Philadelphia ?' ` Joseph Anthony is my uncle.' `That is enough,— come in,' and I carried him in and he received a hearty welcome."

Thus, after allowing two years and more to slip by, Stuart was received by West as a pupil, and, as was not unusual in those days, became an inmate of his master's hOuse. During the four or five years passed under West's guidance, Stuart, in spite of his vagaries and trying ways,was treated with uniform kindness and consideration, and if the gifted pupil could gain nOthing from his master's stilted style and dry manner of painting, he profited greatly by his. close association with such a man as West, and by the opportunity afforded him of meeting the distinguished people who frequented the studio of the popular American artist, painter tO His Majesty George iii.

In addition to his studies under West, Stuart drew in the Royal Academy schools, attended Cruikshank's lectures On anatomy, and heard Sir Joshua Reynolds's celebrated discourses; and yet, no matter under whose teaching he might come, his manner of painting was and always remained peculiarly his own.

In 1777 he first exhibited at the Royal Academy, and in 1782 achieved a triumph there by his `Portrait of a Gentleman Skating.' This picture, a full-length portrait of Mr. William Grant, of Congalton, skating in St. James's Park, owned in England by Charles Stapleton Pelham-Clinton, Esq., at once established his reputation. He now determined to strike out for himself; but befOre leaving West he painted a portrait of his master which West himself commended, saying to his pupil, "You have done well, Stuart, very well; now all you have to do is to go home and do better."

Thus encouraged, Stuart toOk a hOuse in London, set up his own studio, and at once attained such success that he may be said to have rivaled Sir Joshua Reynolds and Gainsborough in popularity. Although the prices he asked for his portraits were second only to the prices received by those painters, orders poured in upon him. Among the many distinguished people who sat to him were King GeOrge iii., the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Northumberland, Admiral Sir John Jervis, the Duke Of Manchester, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Copley, Gainsborough, John Kemble, Isaac Barré, and Alderman Boydell.

For a brief period Stuart lived like a prince. The money he won so easily was spent with equal ease, and with never a thought for the morrow. He hired a fine house, kept a corps of servants, and entertained right royally. On the friendliest of terms with his brother artists, he was also sought after by per-sons of high rank and distinction. His ready wit and sparkling humor de-lighted one and all.

Not long after establishing himself in this princely fashion, Stuart, then in his thirty-first year, married Miss Charlotte Coates, daughter of Dr. Coates of Berkshire, England, and sister of a friend of Stuart's, who, although personally attached to the painter, did all in his power to prevent his sister's marriage with one so reckless in his habits and expenditure as Stuart was known to be. OppositiOn was useless, however; and with the reluctant consent of the lady's family, the marriage took place on May 10, 1786.

Mrs. Stuart had beauty, and, an attraction which counted for even more with Stuart, a rich contralto vOice. Stuart himself was tall, of fine physique, with brown hair, ruddy complexion, and prOnOunced features; not what would be called a handsome man, but possessed of a power, when he chose to exert it, of charming all with whom he came in contact, though unfortunately his capricious disposition and quick outbursts of temper often alienated those who could not always remember that his heart was warm and his real nature true and sincere.

The inevitable result of Stuart's extravagant mode of life was soon shown, and partly to escape financial embarrassments he removed in 1788 to Ireland, where he opened a studio in Dublin. His success in the Irish capital was immediate. "He was delighted with the society he met there," writes his daughter; "the elegant manners, the wit, and the hospitality of the upper class of the Irish suited his genial temperament. I am sorry to say that Stuart entered too much into their convivialities. The fact is, it was his misfortune—I might say his curse —to have been such an acquisition to and so sought after by society."

Whether there is any truth in the story that Stuart's creditors followed him to Ireland, and that many of the pOrtraits of the nobility painted there were painted while in the debtors' prison, is open to doubt, but we know that though constantly employed and liberally paid he never had money enough to meet his expenses, and that when in 1792 he made up his mind to return to America, he was so impecunious that he lacked means tO pay for his passage across the ocean, and agreed as an equivalent to paint a portrait of the owner of the ship.

It has always been said that Stuart's determination to return to his own country was prompted by a patriotic desire to paint a portrait of Washington —a desire so strong that no inducements to remain could alter his decision. Whatever may have been the impelling cause of his return, it stands re-cOrded that in the autumn of 1792, after an absence of seventeen years, Gilbert Stuart landed in New York. The receptiOn given him by his country-men was most cordial. He at once established himself in Stone Street, near William, then one of the most desirable parts of the city; and as soon as it became known that he was ready for sitters, his brush was kept busy. Before long he received an order to paint the Duke of Kent, who offered to send a ship of war fOr him, but so firm was his determination to paint Washington's portrait that he declined. In after years Stuart used to say that he regarded his declining this offer as the most signal mistake of his life.

Two years were allowed to pass before his purpose was accomplished. In the winter of 1794-95, however, Stuart went to Philadelphia, furnished with a letter of introduction to Washington from the Hon. John Jay, and soon after his arrival called upon the President and left his card and letter. The response was an invitation to pass an evening with Washington, who received him with cordiality, but who, by Stuart's own acknowledgment, so awed the painter by the dignity of his presence that for a moment even Stuart's self-possession deserted him. It was soon arranged that the President should sit to the painter, and toward the spring of 1795 Stuart fulfilled his long-cherished wish.

Besides portraits of the President and Mrs. Washington, he painted many of the prominent men and beautiful wOmen then gathered in Philadelphia, at that time the very center of fashion and gaity in the young republic. Congress held its sessions there, and from fOreign lands, as well as from different parts of the United States, distinguished men and women were assembled. Stuart's painting-room at Fifth and Chestnut Streets became the resort of all the fashionable society, and in Order to paint without interruption he was obliged to take a studio in Germantown, some six miles distant.

After the removal of Congress to the city of Washington Stuart transferred his studio to the new capital, where his rooms on F Street, near Seventh, were as much frequented by prominent people as had been his studios in New York and Philadelphia. His brush, indeed, wOuld never have been allowed to rest had his clients had their way. A friend of Mrs. Madison's, writing to that lady during one of her temporary absences from Washington, says, "Stuart is all the rage, he is almost worked to death, and every one is afraid that they will be the last tO be finished. He says, `The ladies come and say," Dear Mr. Stuart, I am afraid you will be very much tired; you really must rest when my picture is done"! ''

After about two years in Washington, Stuart, urged thereto by the Hon. JOnathan Mason, then United States senator from Massachusetts, removed to Boston, where the remainder of his life was spent. His house and studio in that city were first in Washington Place, Fort Hill, and later in Essex Street. At one time—during the war of 1812—he resided in Roxbury. His sitters included many of Boston's well-known men and women, and his vogue as a portrait-painter continued with unabated success until within a short time of his death, when age and failing health impaired his powers.

The number of portraits painted by Stuart after his return from England has been roughly estimated at about eight hundred. This does not include many of his unfinished pictures, too numerous to be counted. All of these, thrown aside for one reason or another, were banished to the garret, where they were allowed to remain. Mr. George C. Mason tells us that the artist was quick to take offence at any remark or comment on a portrait before it was completed.

"On one occasion," he says, "a lady left her seat, and looking over the artist's shoulder, fOund fault with the likeness he was painting. He tried for a moment to be amiable, and quoted the text frOm St. James: `A man beholdeth his natural face in a glass and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.' Then he rose from his chair and in his most polite manner said, `Excuse me, Madam, I cannot paint by directiOn.' Having said this, he strode across the room, rang the bell, and ordered the servant to take the canvas to the garret—a step that brought a flood of tears to the eyes of the sitter; but that had no effect on the painter."

One of Stuart's last portraits was that of John Adams, painted in 1825, when Mr. Adams was in his ninetieth year. Some time before this he had painted one of John Quincy Adams, in whose diary, under date of September 19, 1818, occurs the following entry: "I sat to Stuart befOre and after breakfast, and found his conversation, as it had been at every sitting, very entertaining. His Own figure is highly picturesque, with his dress always disordered, and taking snuff from a large, round tin wafer box, holding perhaps half a pound, which he must use up in a day."

This habit of taking snuff was with Stuart inveterate. Indeed, as one of his biographers has said,'" His snuff-boxwas as necessaryto him as his palette and pencils, and always had a place on his easel." But although himself deriving comfort from the habit, he warned others against it, pronouncing it to be "vile, pernicious, and dirty," humorously pleading as an excuse for his own practice that he was "born in a snuff -mill."

In 1825 Stuart's health began to fail. Symptoms of paralysis greatly depressed him, and although his mind remained clear and unimpaired to the last, his buoyant spirits deserted him, and it was only occasionally that flashes of the brilliant wit for which he had been famous were shown. In the spring of 1828 the gout, to which he had Iong been a victim, attacked his chest and stomach; for three months he suffered acutely and bore the torture with fortitude. On July 9, 1828, as recorded in the original register of deaths in the city of Boston, the end came, and in the seventy-third year of his age Gilbert Stuart passed away, leaving his wife and three daughters to survive him. He was buried in the cemetery on Boston Common, where to-day a bronze tablet marks as nearly as can be determined the location of the vault.

THE fOllOwing extract is from an obituary notice of Gilbert Stuart by Washington Allston, written on July 17, and published in the `Boston Daily Advertiser' of July 22, 1828.

GILBERT STUART was not only one of the first painters of his time, but must have been admitted, by all who had an opportunity of knowing him, to have been, even out of his art, an extraordinary man; one who would have found distinction easy in any other profession or walk of life. His mind was of a strong and original cast, his perceptions as clear as they were just, and in the power of illustration he has rarely been equaled. On almost every subject, more especially on such as were connected with his art, his conversation was marked by wisdom and knowledge; while the uncommon precision and elegance of his language seemed ever to receive an additional grace from his manner, which was that of a well-bred gentleman.

The narrations and anecdotes with which his knowledge of men and of the world had stored his memory, and which he often gave with great beauty and dramatic effect, were not unfrequently employed by Mr. Stuart in a way and with an address peculiar to himself. From this store it was his custom to draw largely while occupied with his sitters—apparently for their amusement; but his object was rather, by thus banishing all restraint, to call forth, if possible, some involuntary traits of the natural character. But these glimpses of character, mixed as they are in all men with so much that belongs to their age and associates, would have been of little use to an ordinary observer; for the faculty of distinguishing between the accidental and the permanent, in other words, between the conventional expression which arises from manners and that more subtle indication of the individual mind, is indeed no common one; and by no one with whom we are acquainted was this faculty possessed in so remarkable a degree. It was this which enabled him to animate his canvas—not with the appearance of mere general life, but with that peculiar distinctive life which separates the humblest individual from his kind. He seemed to dive into the thoughts Of men, for they were made to rise and to speak on the surface. Were other evidences wanting, this talent alone were sufficient to establish his claims as a man of genius, since it is the privilege of genius alone to measure at once the highest and the lowest. In his happier efforts, no one ever surpassed him iii embodying (if we may so speak) these transient apparitions of the soul.

In a word, Gilbert Stuart was, in its widest sense, a philosopher in his art; he thoroughly understood its principles, as his works bear witness—whether as to the harmony of colors, or of lines, or of light and shadow—showing that exquisite sense of a whole which only a man of genius can realize and em-body....

In the world of art Mr. Stuart has left a void that will not soon be filled. And well may his country say, "A great man has passed from amongst us." But Gilbert Stuart has bequeathed her what is paramount to power—since no power can command it—the rich inheritance of his fame.

Gilbert Stuart:
Gilbert Stuart - 1755-1828

The Art Of Gilbert Stuart

The Works Of Gilbert Stuart

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