American artist Gilbert Stuart said the following about his first portrait session with George Washington. “When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face.”
Yet despite the 65-year-old Washington’s down-in-the-mouth countenance, the sittings with Washington produce what is arguably the most famous portrait of any United States president — one readily on view in any cash register.
Obviously it is the dollar bill Washington.
Not so obvious is that the creator of the buck image’s stopped here and had a house and studio in Bordentown between 1803 and 1805.
And probably not much of consideration is that the dollar image is actually one in a series of replicas created by Stuart between the above mentioned 1795 painting session and the artist’s death in 1828.
Based on the premise that people would want a portrait of Washington from an artist who was actually face-to-face with the great man, the Washington portrait was Stuart’s own dollar maker.
And in addition to more than 1,000 portraits of mainly famous or wealthy Americans, Stuart cranked out 130 finished Washington portraits of various sizes.
The irony is that the painting Stuart used to complete the others wasn’t finished. It was created mainly as means to mass produce other portraits in order to make a buck — like an early Andy Warhol.
An additional irony is that the artist never saw Washington on the bill or made a cent from it.
An engraved image of the painting first appeared in 1869 around the time that paper currency was introduced. And while other images got thrown into the mix, Stuart’s portrait kept reappearing until it became “the” dollar image in the early 20th century.
And with billions of dollar bills circulating at any given time, the Washington portrait can easily be called the image seen ’round the world for more than a century.
The various paintings in Stuart’s series have different names attached them for reference, and the unfinished one is called the Athenaeum portrait.
The name refers to the Boston Athenaeum, where the work was sent for keeping after the artist died in Boston.
While the image was chosen for the dollar because it was reputed to capture Washington’s exact likeness, it really may have been selected because it was popular and was in a good number of influential collections.
Philadelphia artist Rembrandt Peale — whose artist father Charles Willson Peale fought with Washington at the Battle of Princeton and painted the portrait on display at the Princeton University Art Museum — said he admired Stuart’s painting, but there was a “deviation from the true style and character of (his) head.”
But the image suggested a strength and serenity that many Americans wanted when the nation was still young and as uncertainty about a democratic nation was rekindled during the Civil War.
Once Stuart’s image was mass produced on the dollar it transformed the actual Washington into a secular icon — and transformed Stuart’s unfinished work into a national treasure that is now jointly owned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Another Stuart version of Washington, the Pennington portrait, is owned by the United States Senate and is connected to the region.
According to Senate materials, the painting “takes its name from its first owner, Edward Pennington, a Philadelphian who was a founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It may be assumed that Pennington acquired the Washington portrait around the time Stuart was in Bordentown, New Jersey, where Stuart left his family while he was in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, where at least some of Pennington’s family lived.”
The Senate’s information is only partially complete. One reason Stuart moved to Bordentown was he was chasing politically connected and well heeled clients and Bordentown, located a between Washington and Boston, helped that effort.
Another was the artist was broke. Although successful and heavy with clients, Stuart was often in debt due to his poor money management and high living lifestyle. So Bordentown became an affordable place that allowed him to keep a family while pursuing clients in Philadelphia and New York.
So who exactly is Stuart? The National Gallery calls him “the preeminent portraitist in Federal America. He combined a talent for recording likeness with an ability to interpret a sitter’s personality or character in the choice of pose, color and style of clothing, and setting. He introduced to America the loose, brushy style used by many of the leading artists of late 18th century London. He recorded likenesses of lawyers, politicians, diplomats, Native Americans, their wives and children. His sitters included many prominent Americans, among them the first five presidents, their advisors, families, and admirers. He is known especially for his numerous portraits of George Washington.”
The National Gallery also plots out his biography: “Born in 1755 in North Kingston, Rhode Island, Stuart was baptized with his name spelled ‘Stewart.’ His father, an immigrant Scot, built and operated a snuff mill that may have led to the artist’s addiction to snuff. He grew up in the trading city of Newport, where itinerant Scottish portraitist Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772) gave him his earliest training in painting. He accompanied Alexander to Scotland in 1771, returning home at the older artist’s death. Three years later in 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, he went to London, where he worked for five years (1777-1782) as assistant to the Anglo-American painter Benjamin West. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1777 to 1785, using the name Gilbert Charles Stuart the first year.”
After gaining success for a 1782 painting, “The Skater,” Stuart established his own portrait painting practice, married, and moved to Dublin, where he painted portraits of the Protestant ruling minority.
Then in 1793 he returned to the United States. And while he sometimes said he was returning because he loved liberty, others suggested he loved not being in British jails for unpaid bills.
So it is not a wonder that his return to the United States included a plan to get rich and secure an American reputation. The key was to go big and paint a portrait of the biggest name in the United States: George Washington.
His first step was to head to New York City, where he successfully painted himself into a crowd of influential Americans.
Then, according to the National Gallery, “after about a year in New York City he went to Philadelphia, the capital of the United States, with a letter of introduction to Washington from John Jay (who had been appointed by Washington as the nation’s first chief justice). He painted the president in the winter or early spring of 1795.”
While Stuart was upbeat, the subject was not, and the session could have been a disaster and ruined the artist’s plan.
As Metropolitan Museum of Art writer Carrie Rebora Barratt reports, “Stuart’s trouble with Washington belies the degree of spontaneity in many of the portraits. An artist accustomed to easily engaging and enlivening his clients with conversation and jokes, Stuart was at a loss with Washington: ‘An apathy seemed to seize him and a vacuity spread over his countenance, most appalling to paint.’ Yet, despite the struggle to capture the president’s elusive character, Stuart succeeded in executing the image that was then and is now considered to be a definitive and insightful likeness.”
And while Stuart was not satisfied with that first Washington portrait, he had realized his plan and more commissions followed, including Martha Washington’s request for another portrait of her husband.
It was during that sitting that Stuart allegedly conceived the never completed painting — one that he could not give to the Washingtons because it wasn’t done, but one done enough to serve as the template for his Washington portrait painting business.
As anticipated, Stuart saw a boom in business, and in 1803 he was in the thick of things in Washington, DC, painting Thomas Jefferson, members of the Jefferson administration, and future president James Madison and his wife, Dolley.
But at the same time his spendthrift habits were causing a domestic crisis, and he was forced to skedaddle to Bordentown, where he established a studio (address not clear) and attracted local clients with the means to pay for a Stuart portrait.
One subject was Ann Penington. She was the daughter of Sarah and Isaac Penington, the latter being a lawyer and a relative of the Quakers who arrived in the Delaware Valley and who gave the town of Pennington its name.
As noted in the 1926 “Gilbert Stuart: An Illustrated Descriptive List of His Works,” the artist shows young Ann holding “a miniature in her hands, and through an open window one catches a pleasing glimpse of the Delaware River. This picture is especially interesting as being one of the few known portraits by Stuart to which he affixed his name, ‘G. Stuart, Bordentown, 1805,’ being painted beneath the window.”
The likeness — now at the Powell House in Philadelphia and owned by the Philadelphia Society of Preservation and Landmarks — was a poignant depiction for the family — as it is for the contemporary viewer. The young woman died from consumption a year later.
But by then Stuart and his family had saved enough to vacate Bordentown and head for the money-greener pastures of Boston, where the artist became busy painting politically and socially prominent sitters and creating replicas of his Washington portrait.
It was also there Stuart realized the fruit of his grand scheme and used his considerable talent to become an American success.
In addition to being in demand for high-paying commissions, he had become an inspiration to a generation of new young artists and had produced works important to a new nation.
In fact, his Washington portraits were so important that First Lady Dolley Madison took a Stuart painting of Washington when she fled the White House to escape the British soldiers who successfully attacked the building during the War of 1812.
Stuart also became part of American lore, with the National Gallery pointing out that “his sitters indicated their fascination for his talent and personality by recording lengthy anecdotes and descriptions of their sittings, producing an unusually rich written record about an American portraitist.”
But lore works both ways and, as others report, Stuart was famous for his chronic stubbornness and outrageous behavior and for the drinking, anger, and profligate habits that contributed to his ruin — and the alienation of his long-suffering family.
Yet if Stuart’s art is his last word, he shines. As the National Gallery assesses, “He introduced a new level of sophistication to the American portrait.”
All while he was making the image for the dollar while trying to make a buck — even in our region of New Jersey.
Gilbert Stuart Up Close
For an opportunity to see Gilbert Stuart’s work up close, visit the Princeton University Art Museum and view his 1794 portrait of William Bayard (not to be confused with family member Samuel Bayard, the namesake for Princeton’s Bayard Lane).
The museum describes the painting as follows:
Descended from an old New Jersey family, merchant William Bayard was highly regarded for acumen and probity. He sat for Stuart during the artist’s stay in New York, following a long period of portrait painting in Ireland. The resulting image, at once decorative, dignified, and virtuosic, is distinguished by the tension between its exuberant palette and the sitter’s sober pose and demeanor. Stuart’s picture is further enlivened by its characteristically soft modeling and sketchy finish, as well as by its incomplete composition, especially evident in the merely suggested quill and inkwell — the latter curiously rendered twice — and the nonexistent chair upon which the “sitter” would normally rest. Whether the portrait’s unfinished state is due to circumstance or, as in other works by the artist, was by design, is unknown.
Princeton University Art Museum. Princeton campus, Free. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Mondays. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu