Gilbert Stuart: Portrait Painter of Presidents

“Gilbert Stuart: Portrait Painter of Presidents,” Friend, Feb. 1984, 20

Gilbert Stuart:
Portrait Painter of Presidents

How would you feel if the president of the United States had agreed to let you paint his portrait?

Artist Gilbert Stuart may have felt nervous as he waited for George Washington to arrive at his studio. Stuart was born in Rhode Island in 1755. He’d been painting portraits since he was thirteen. He’d studied art in Scotland, Ireland, and England and had earned a reputation as a talented portrait painter.

When President Washington arrived at Gilbert’s home studio, the six-foot-two Washington set his face in the stony, lifeless expression typically seen in portraits of that period. Stuart wondered how he could get Washington to appear more natural. The artist usually got his subjects to pose with lively expressions on their faces by talking to them about their interests. Stuart tried to talk to the president about the American Revolution. When Washington didn’t respond, Stuart tried discussing great political figures of ancient Rome. Washington seemed bored, so Stuart had to do his best without the president’s help. The same was true when he painted a second portrait of Washington, this time a full-length picture.

When Washington sat for his third portrait—the last one by Stuart—the artist was still puzzling over how to capture a more lively expression of Washington. Finally Stuart gripped his paintbrush and began to sketch the outline of the president’s head. When Stuart happened to glance up from his canvas, he saw a sudden, bright expression cross Washington’s face. The president had just seen a beautiful horse gallop by the window. Stuart searched his brain for all that he knew about horses and started talking, and Washington’s face soon glowed with interest in their conversation.

From horses, the conversation turned to farming. George Washington had been a planter in Virginia before he became president of the United States. Unfortunately, before the sitting that day was finished, the president’s face had assumed its stiff expression again.

In subsequent sittings, some of Washington’s friends came with him, and their conversation helped keep the president’s face more animated. However, now Stuart wanted Washington’s expression to better show his powerful leadership qualities. By making the president wait when he arrived for the sitting, Stuart irritated Washington just enough so that his face reflected the expression he wore when he was a general commanding his troops.

Stuart was fascinated with faces. He developed a talent for seeing the personality of his subjects and painting that personality into the picture on his canvas. He had little patience for painting background, clothes, or bodies. He often left these parts of his portraits half-finished, or he omitted them altogether. As Stuart painted his third portrait of Washington, which came to be known as the Athenaeum portrait, he deliberately included details of only the president’s face. It is the picture you see reproduced on the one-dollar bill. However, there is one difference between the way Washington appears on the dollar bill and in the portrait: The portrait shows the left side of Washington’s face, and the dollar bill shows the mirror image of it.

Stuart deliberately never finished the portrait. He was determined to keep the original and sell only copies of it. Whenever Mrs. Washington—who had ordered the painting in the first place—asked for the portrait, Stuart made excuses as to why it wasn’t finished. The president’s wife eventually had to settle for a copy.

The copy was valuable too! When the British captured the Capitol during the War of 1812, they set fire to it and advanced toward the White House. As Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, fled, she ordered a servant to rescue the portrait of Washington.

Gilbert Stuart continued painting until his death in 1828. He had painted the portraits of Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. But he is best remembered for the Athenaeum portrait of George Washington, which he kept with him all his life.

The Athenaeum Portrait of George Washington