1902 Encyclopedia > Gilbert Stuart

Gilbert Stuart
American portrait painter

GILBERT STUART (1755-1828), a distinguished American portrait-painter, was born in Narragansett, Rhode Island, U.S., December 3, 1755. His father, a native of Perth, Scotland, and the son of a Presbyterian minister, had set up a snuff-mill in Narragansett, in company with another Scotsman, Dr Thomas Moffatt, and was known as "the snuff-grinder." The father removed early to Newport, where his son had the advantage of good instruction. He began to draw early, but none of his sketches have been preserved. His first known pictures are of two Spanish dogs, and two portraits, the latter painted when he was thirteen years old, and now in the Redwood Library, Newport. In 1770-71 he received some instruction from a Scottish artist named Cosmo Alexander, who took him to Scotland with him; but, this patron dying soon after his arrival, Stuart, after struggling for a while at the university of Glasgow, had to work his way home in a collier. In the spring of 1775 he sailed again for England, and became the pupil and assistant of Benjamin West, with whom he painted until 1785, when he set up a studio of his own. One of his best pictures of this period is a full-length portrait of W. Grant of Congalton skating in St James's Park, now at Moor Court, Stroud, in the possession of Lord Charles Pelham Clinton. Two fine half-lengths by Stuart are in the National Gallery—his preceptor Benjamin West and the engraver Woolett. Stuart married in London and remained there, with the exception of a short visit to Dublin in 1788, until 1792, when he returned to America. Early in 1795 Stuart painted his first head of Washington. This portrait exhibits the right side of the face, and, although the least familiar, is undoubtedly the truest of the three portraits of Washington from his hand. The second was a full-length for the marquis of Lansdowne, and the third a vignette head now belonging to the Athenaeum in Boston, U.S. These last two show the left side of the face, and, although they are the readily recognized "Stuart's Washington," are unsatisfactory as portraits and inferior as works of art. There are sixty-one replicas of these three pictures, and they have been engraved more than two hundred times. In the catalogue of Stuart's works are recorded seven hundred and fifty-four portraits. Stuart remained in Philadelphia, where he painted many of the prominent men of the country, until 1803, when he removed to Washington; two years later he went to Boston, where he died July 27, 1828.

Stuart's pictures have been little injured by time, which is doubtless owing to his use of pure colours and to his manner of employing them. His practice was to lay all the tints in their places separately and distinctly alongside of each other before any blend-ing was used, and then they were united by means of a large soft brush and without corrupting their freshness. It is this method that gives the firmness and solidity to his flesh work. A marked feature of Stuart's work is the total absence of all lines, his work being painted in with the brush from the beginning. It is this process that gives to his modelling its strength and rotundity. Stuart was pre-eminent as a colourist, and his place, judged by the highest canons in art, is unquestionably among the few recognized masters of portraiture.

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