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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Gilbert Stuart

Gilbert Stuart Self-portrait, 1778
Some time ago, I made mention of the fact that Gilbert Stuart comes quickly to mind when one mentions American artists. Of course this colonial portrait master owes most, if not all, his popularity to our first president. His portrait of Washington, which formed the basis for the etching on the one-dollar bill (below, left), makes him undoubtedly the most published painter of all time. His unfinished portrait of Washington (below, right, seen cropped on the left and bottom in most reproductions) has graced classroom walls in past eras to become an American icon rivaling the flag itself.

Stuart's unfinished portrait of Washington,
the last in a series of highly lucrative
copies of the original commissioned
by Martha Washington.
Actually there is not one Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart but dozens (some sources say as many as 130). Once the original portrait was begun, it proved so popular that Stuart started knocking them out one every few weeks. In fact, when Martha Washington demanded the original, Stuart is known to have put her off several weeks so he could finish numerous copies. The famous unfinished portrait is a copy that Stuart was unable to complete before his death. Though great in number, these commercially exploitative paintings (sold for $100. each) were not Stuart's only representation of Washington, or necessarily his best.

Noticed the engraver
reversed Stuart's image.

Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, 1796, Gilbert Stuart
In 2001, headlines proclaimed, "A little piece of America comes home to stay." That's a quaint, patriotic-sounding way of putting it, but not very accurate. Actually, the 217-year old Stuart portrait of Washington was not what you'd call little, and in any case, it had already been in the United States since 1968. It's some eight feet tall and five feet wide and it has been on loan to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington for decades; but thanks to a $30 million gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, Gilbert Stuart's original Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington (above) at last came to belong to this country.

Dolley Madison, 1804, Gilbert Stuart
If the Landsdowne designation doesn't ring a bell, think Dolley Madison, think about the burning of the White House in 1814, and think about the portrait of Washington she saved from its walls just hours before. That was a copy of Stuart's Lansdowne. The painting depicts a full-length figure of Washington in civilian clothes - a black velvet suit - standing amid classical splendor, gesturing dramatically toward a table laden with books and writing materials. The handsomely bound books bear the titles American Revolution, Constitution, Federalist, and Laws of the United States. It was not Stuart's first portrait of Washington nor his last. It was not even his best; but it and the two copies he made later are probably the most famous.

The painting was originally commissioned by William Bingham, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, in 1796. Washington, who was a very reluctant subject, quite likely owed the man a favor. Some speculate that Bingham's wife, Anne, may have been responsible for persuading the president to pose. In any case, the portrait has long been highly regarded on both sides of the Atlantic. The painting gained its name from the fact that it was a gift to the first Marquis of Landsdowne, a former British Prime Minister and a strong supporter of American causes in Parliament during the Revolution. The painting passed down through many hands in the ensuing 200 years, inherited, sold, and resold until it eventually came to be owned by Lord Dalmeny of London.

The National Portrait Gallery display of the Lansdowne Portrait flanked on the left by Stuart's painting of Martha Washington and on the right his famous unfinished portrait of George.
Though the portrait had been in this country on display at the National Portrait Gallery for many years, Dalmeny notified the Smithsonian Institution that he was willing to sell them the painting for $20 million if they could raise the cash by April 1, 2001. Otherwise, it would go on the auction block. The Reynolds commitment came through on March 13. An additional $4 million was used to construct a suitable space for the permanent display of the work (above) while $6 million went for a three-year nation-wide tour and associated education programs.

Thomas Sully's portrait of
Washington (1820) is based
upon Stuart's version but
corrects the stature
problems of the Lansdowne.
Stuart's Lansdowne image
(perhaps because of the coat)
seems to make the president
look shorter than his six-foot,
two-inch stature.
Though the painting presents Washington as somewhat shorter and stockier than history records, it ranks near the top of everyone's list as one of the most important works of art in American history. Some even see it as standing alongside the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as one of our nation's most important historic icons. With its strong, idealized, expansive pose, the portrait projects a strikingly optimistic message of strength, stability, resolution, and calm determination very much in keeping with our current national resolve as a nation.

1 comment:

  1. I don't see this blog as primarily to display my own work but to deal with art now and art then in a comparative context. Of course, if I have something of my own that contributes to that purpose, I'm not averse to a little "shameless self-promotion," so you may see some of my work from time to time, but only as a means to my broader aim.--Jim Lane