It’s quite possible that many Americans have seen the art work of Gilbert Stuart more than any other painter. But what do you really know about the Founding-era artist?
Born on December 3, 1755 in Rhode Island, Stuart was the portrait artist of choice at the start of the Federal era under our Constitution. His best-known work was never finished – a partial portrait of George Washington that appears on the $1 bill. Stuart painted portraits of six presidents and two became their official portraits – those of Washington and John Quincy Adams.
It was also a version of Stuart’s most famous complete painting, the Lansdowne portrait of Washington, that First Lady Dolley Madison helped to save from British troops who burned down the White House in 1814.
Despite his artistic and business income, Stuart died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave in 1828 in Boston, and the exact location of his remains is unknown.
In his lifetime, Stuart painted a wide variety of prominent political figures, including King George III (when Stuart lived in Europe), John Jay, Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, James and Dolley Madison, Thomas Jefferson, King Louis XVI of France, James Monroe, John Randolph, Rufus King and Benjamin West.
His first success was a picture called The Skater, a portrait of William Grant done in England in 1782. By 1794, Stuart was living in Philadelphia, which gave him easy access to President Washington (since the national capital was in Philadelphia at that time.)
Stuart’s paintings of Washington shaped what generations of Americans envision as his likeness. His 1796 unfinished painting of Washington, called The Athenaeum, was duplicated in part by Stuart more than 100 times. A follow-up painting, the Lansdowne portrait, is a full image of Washington in the act of giving a speech.
In 1803, Stuart moved to the new capital of Washington to pursue more work. He painted Jefferson, the Madisons, Albert Gallatin, and William Thornton, among others. Within two years, Stuart moved back to New England and settled in Boston, where he continued to actively work until his death in 1828.
Throughout his life, Stuart was plagued by financial problems and bad spending habits, even though he had a thriving business. He left his family deeply in debt when he died, and Stuart was placed in an unmarked grave in Boston Common. A decade later, when his family had enough money to give Stuart a proper burial, no one could locate the grave’s location.
In his lifetime, Stuart painted more than 1,000 people who were political and societal figures in the pivotal early days of our republic under the Constitution. That legacy is enduring and it has made Stuart one of the most popular and best-known artists in our history.