- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

Empty your wallet, and chances are that a portrait by the early American artist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) will emerge. Stuart’s famous likeness of President Washington is printed in reverse on the $1 bill. The success of that image persuaded the next four presidents to have the artist paint their portraits, too.

Stuart popularized images of our early presidents, but he was no political or artistic revolutionary. Before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the artist left the American Colonies for Britain, where he lived for nearly 20 years, returning during Washington’s second term.

While abroad, he emulated the fashionable painters of his day, including Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, and hobnobbed with the upper crust.

Yet the self-taught Stuart was unmistakably American in emphasizing the individuality of his sitters. He captured the haughtiness of a merchant’s wife, the athleticism of a lawyer and the weariness of an ex-president with equal intensity.

The egalitarianism of his portraiture is fully celebrated in the Stuart retrospective, the first in nearly 40 years, at the National Gallery of Art.

This marvelous tribute, co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, expands our view of Stuart through 91 paintings. All of his best works are here, including 13 Washington likenesses and paired portraits of power couples, such as James and Dolley Madison, that have been brought together from different collections.

The most compelling portraits in this survey, as it turns out, depict people less famous than presidents. Stuart was our nation’s first great portraitist because of his ability to represent the distinctive character of his sitters — whether a dreamy poetess or a hard-nosed politician. In relating this talent, the exhibit also traces the fits and starts — the cantankerous Stuart sometimes left portraits unfinished after he had carefully painted the face.

Chronologically arranged, the exhibit begins in Newport, R.I., where as a teenager, Stuart first showed a knack for portraiture. Several early works, though stiff and amateurish, hint at the young artist’s ability to convey the inner lives of his sitters through soulful eyes.

In 1775, as British warships were moving into Newport’s harbor, Stuart sailed for London and became an assistant to Benjamin West, an American-born history painter for King George III.

Three years after crossing the Atlantic, Stuart completed one of his most arresting pictures, an old masters-inspired self-portrait. Posed in a black hat and within dark shadow, the artist’s luminous face turns toward us with half-open mouth as if to speak about his newfound artistic confidence.

At this point, Stuart’s work becomes more lifelike and engaging. One of his most appealing portraits, “The Skater,” shows a British barrister confidently gliding across the ice.

The novelty and assuredness of the pose rightfully earned Stuart critical praise and led him to set up his own London portrait studio in 1782. Among his early commissions was one to paint a visiting Mohawk chief, whose wistful expression goes against warrior type.

In 1787, Stuart left London for Dublin to take over a painting commission from Reynolds. His rising reputation led to many rosy-cheeked portraits of aristocrats and politicians. They testify to the artist’s exaggeration of skin coloring to emphasize the face, or as he put it, “sink your drapery and bring out the flesh.”

Success in Ireland bolstered Stuart’s ambition to paint America’s first president and profit from the demand for the leader’s likeness in the United States as well as in Britain. Arriving in New York in 1793, the painter immediately began social climbing to gain access to Washington.

Along the way, he painted some of the best portraits of his career. Among them were those of the hatted Catherine Brass Yates and her husband, merchant Richard Yates, whose images hang side by side. In contrast to her genial mate, Catherine comes across as a shrewd operator, as tightly wound as the sewing thread in her hands.

In choosing to represent her cool demeanor, Stuart largely ignored the practice of portraying women as symbols of beauty and motherhood. As evident in his paintings of the defiant Elizabeth Law and the worldly Anne Bingham, he often imbued his female subjects with more personality than his male sitters. No wonder many of his American clients were women.

To coax natural expressions and gestures from his sitters, Stuart relied on animated conversation. He couldn’t make Washington comfortable, for example, until they started talking about horses. Sometimes, when he ran out of patience or time with a subject, the painter would leave parts of the canvas blank or incomplete.

Such was the case with his most famous Washington likeness, referred to as the Athenaeum portrait after the Boston museum that owned it. The painting was undertaken in 1796 at the request of first lady Martha Washington, who wanted to hang portraits of herself and her husband in their Mount Vernon home. Stuart completed only the heads, then kept the paintings for himself. It’s easy to understand his attachment. Compared to his other images of Washington, the president in this cameo looks more dignified and real.

This unfinished work was the second of three Washington portraits Stuart painted from life. Though Stuart destroyed his first portrait of the president, painted in 1795, the exhibit includes a replica, known as the Vaughn portrait, that looks hastily painted.

Original or copy, the artist seems to have had trouble capturing Washington’s likeness. The exhibit explains that Stuart may have had difficulty with the president’s jaw line because of Washington’s false teeth, which created a swollen, uncomfortable look.

Even Stuart’s third life portrait of Washington comes off as wooden and contrived. The full-length formal image shows the velvet-suited leader with outstretched arm, recalling several Irish portraits shown earlier in the exhibit. (The painting, originally sold to the Marquis of Lansdowne in 1797, was purchased in 2001 for $20 million by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation as a gift to the National Portrait Gallery.)

From these life studies of Washington, Stuart made about 100 copies, most of which he sold to wealthy collectors. A number of the replicas hang side by side in the exhibit like repetitious Andy Warhol silk screens, inviting us to compare slight variations in the president’s physique, complexion and ruffled shirt.

The exhibit also presents Stuart portraits of the four subsequent presidents, painted in Philadelphia, Washington and Boston. The most memorable of these depicts John Adams, whose rapport with Stuart is made evident through slightly parted lips and keen eyes. The artist painted this portrait of the second president during his final year in office but finished it more than a decade later, when Adams was 80.

A few years before he died, when his brush strokes had become shaky, Stuart still managed to create an extraordinary portrait of Adams at nearly 90. He dwarfs the old man’s black-clad body against a deep red sofa and lights his wrinkled face against a dark background to rivet our attention on Adams’ wise, rheumy-eyed gaze.

For Gilbert Stuart, who never lost the ability to capture his sitter’s essence, painting was the ultimate head trip.

WHAT: “Gilbert Stuart”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth St. and Constitution Ave., NW

WHEN: March 27 through July 31; Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.

to 6 p.m.

TICKETS: Free admission

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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