How many Americans today could identify the classic portrait of George Washington on the one dollar bill as copied after the work of Gilbert Stuart? Fewer would even know that the original work (aka, The Athenaeum Portrait; above, from 1796) was never finished, just like the companion portrait of Martha Washington. Born December 3, 1755, Stuart earned a reputation as both the finest American portraitist of his time and the unreliable, debt-ridden, exasperating artist who failed to deliver time and again. Stuart lived large and well beyond his means, enjoying the company of the rich and powerful, including the men who would become the first six presidents of the United States, all of whom Stuart painted, or at least began painting.
Although born in the American colonies and beginning a career as an artist there, Stuart traveled to England to complete his training in 1775 as the hostilities that would become the American Revolution began. Whereas artists such as John Singleton Copley remained in America and adapted from portraits of the upper class to portraits of the new mercantile class, Stuart followed the money and continued to paint members of the upper class. His portrait of William Grant, better known as The Skater (above, from 1782) shows the influence of Benjamin West, who befriended and taught his fellow former colonist. Stuart soon commanded prices rivaling those demanded by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Unfortunately, success spoiled Stuart and his spendthrift ways forced him to flee to Ireland in 1787 to avoid debtor’s prison.
Stuart returned to America in 1793, after the Revolution. He soon began painting the new nobility of the young American nation, earning the distinction of being one of the few artists to have painted both King George III and George Washington. Stuart’s finished portrait of George Washington (aka, The Lansdowne Portrait; above, from 1796) shows the founding father in an almost royal pose, incongruous with the ideal of the early republic. When the nation’s capital moved to Washington, DC, Stuart opened a studio there in 1803 to be close to the seat of power. Stuart’s personal charisma made him the favorite portraitist of many of his subjects, charming even the curmudgeonly John Adams with his conversational skills. Sadly, like his contemporary Thomas Lawrence’s alcoholism, Stuart’s financial incompetence stood in the way of him achieving even greater things in art.