With the increasing interest in American art, now manifesting itself in all corners of the country, there has lately appeared a corresponding interest in the backgrounds of American painting and a consequent revaluation of those early artists who were the first practitioners of painting in this country and who, consciously or not, launched the first tradition of American painting. Artists and laymen alike are observing their work with a more attentive eye and finding in it much that is worthy of praise. Despite the fact that English influence was strong, early examples of American painting possess a flavor that, for all its foreign overtones, marks them as native works of art.Prominent among these early native artists is Gilbert Stuart, whose style may be studied at the Institute in three portraits painted during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These are the portrait of Alexander Townsend painted in 1809, which has been a generous loan from Mrs. Vernon Wright since 1915; the portrait of Master James Ward acquired from the Dunwoody Fund in 1916; and the portrait of Henry Lambert presented to the Institute by Mr. and Mrs. James Ford Bell in 1931.Stuart's style in masculine portraiture is well illustrated in these works. He early formed the habit of capturing vital expressions and recording them instantaneously, and his technique was instrumental to the success of this method. Because he cared more for nature than he did for “art” he was not given to undue flattery in portraiture. This is one reason, no doubt, why his portraits of men are not only more numerous but on the whole more satisfying than his portraits of women. The three works that have long been familiar to visitors to the Institute reveal him primarily as a painter of men, and two of them, the portraits of James Ward and Henry Lambert painted in London during his English period, show him to have been a worthy competitor in the style of his English colleagues.The exact date of Stuart's arrival in England from America is not known, but it was probably late in the fall of 1775. Sometime after he passed his twenty-first birthday (December 3, 1776), Stuart wrote as follows to Benjamin West asking for help and encouragement: “. . . Pitty me Good Sir I've just arriv'd att the age of 21 an age when most young men have done something worthy of notice & find myself Ignorant withoutt business or Friends . . .” West must have responded promptly to his plea, for Stuart's painting, the Portrait of a Gentleman,
was accepted by the Royal Academy for exhibition early in 1777. Since West was on the hanging committee it is not improbable that this honor was the result of his kind interest in Stuart.It is interesting to note that Stuart himself later exhibited a similar interest in young painters who came to him for advice and encouragement. The peculiar qualities of his work: the freshness and transparency of the flesh painting and the frank but dignified expression of character, were the despair of those who endeavored to emulate him. “It is of no use” Benjamin West once said in speaking of him, “to steal Stuart's colors; if you want to paint as he does you must steal his eyes.” When young artists came to him for enlightenment on those matters, Stuart counseled them to seek as carefully for the colors in the complexion as for the character of the sitter, thus giving them the secret of his own greatness.Shortly after his appeal to West, in the summer of 1777, Stuart was invited to take up his quarters in the household of his benefactor, whose pupil and assistant he became. His name did not appear in the Royal Academy catalogue for 1778, but in 1779 he had three works accepted: No. 317, A Young Gentleman, Three Quarters; No. 318, A Little Girl; No. 318*, A Head. Number 317 of this group has been identified as the portrait of Master James Ward which now belongs to the Art Institute. It is an attractive picture in which the subject is presented in a half-length, three-quarter front view. He is dressed in a costume of the time of Van Dyck, and his left hand, just visible, is resting on the back of a dog. The portrait is signed “G. C. Stuart, 1779,” and the dog's collar is marked with the name “J. Ward.”It has been suggested that the subject of this painting is the engraver and animal painter, James Ward, who was born in 1769 and who later became a member of the Royal Academy, and a painter and engraver to the Prince of Wales. This is an interesting and probably accurate identification, inasmuch as Ward's first known contact with the arts is said to have been made in the shop of the engraver J. R. Smith, with whom Stuart made friends during his stay in London. Since Ward was working with Smith shortly after the time the portrait was painted, it is quite possible that Stuart may have met him through their mutual acquaintance, Smith.In this canvas, as in a self-portrait done the year before, the luminous flesh painting of Stuart's mature style appears. Since this technique is totally unlike that which the artist used in his work prior to 1777, notably in the portrait of Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, dated 1776 and now in the Redwood Library in Newport, and since the technique bears a strong resemblance to that employed by the famous painter Thomas Gainsborough, it has been assumed that Stuart must have seen and admired Gainsborough's paintings, which appeared in the Royal Academy exhibition for the first time in 1777.In painting the face it was Stuart's custom, after establishing the major relationships, to build up the tones with a number of small strokes, using a variety of tints which from a distance would mingle to produce a vital, luminous, flesh-like quality that has seldom been equalled in the work of other artists. His feeling for the beautiful color and texture of skin is also revealed by his remark that “Flesh is like no other substance under heaven. It has all the gaiety of a silk-mercer's shop without its gaudiness of gloss, and all the softness of old mahogany without its sadness.” It is obvious, from a comparison of their work, that Stuart did not learn this method of flesh painting from West. This is further evidenced by his famous complaint to John Trumbull that West painted in “streaks.” “But,” said Stuart, “nature does not color in streaks, look at my hand; see how the colors are mottled and mingled; yet all is clear as silver.”In the portrait of James Ward, the background with the conventional tree and sky pattern, the richly and boldly painted costume, the head of the dog in the lower right corner, combine with the pose of the figure to produce an unusually pleasant composition whose decorative quality is more marked than most of Stuart's portraits.At some time after it was exhibited, this painting disappeared and was not found until the beginning of this century, when an Englishwoman discovered it hanging in the dining room of a cottage in Oxfordshire. It belonged to an old man of some ninety years who had purchased it at a sale about fifty years before, and who refused to part with it. His niece, however, promised it to the visitor when the old man should want it no longer. She kept her word, and one day a messenger boy arrived at the house of the Englishwoman with the news that “Uncle died this morning, the picture is yours.” So the portrait of Master James Ward passed from the walls of an Oxfordshire cottage, through the hands of the woman who discovered it, to the Art Institute, where it is assured a permanent resting place.Like the Ward portrait, Stuart's painting of Henry Lambert, which now hangs in the Institute's Charleston Drawing Room, was executed during the artist's stay in London. It is undated, but it must certainly have been painted midway in the 1780s. In both technique and general composition it is strikingly like Stuart's portrait of Benjamin West, painted in 1785 and now in the National Gallery in London. Stuart's style at that time was greatly admired in England, and numerous articles in current periodicals reveal his popularity and his extraordinary ability in catching the likeness of his sitters. In February, 1786, for instance, the Morning Cronicle
states that Stuart, “who singularly excels in the great excellence of portrait painting, accuracy of similitude, has made a head of Kemble for Macbeth, marvellously exact.”By 1785 Stuart had left the studio of Benjamin West and set up for himself, having acquired, under West's tutelage, social graces, rare conversational ability, and a taste for elegant living—in addition to technical competence and good habits of work.These qualities are reflected in the portrait of Henry Lambert, who may be identified with a famous English naval officer of the time. He is a gracious person, whose relaxed manner is in marked contrast to the alert expression of his eyes. In his mauve silk coat with its frilled jabot he was, without a doubt, a sympathetic subject for the brush of a man who, in his personal dress, “emulated in style and costliness the leader of English fashion, the then Prince of Wales.”Again in the Lambert portrait we see Stuart's sensitive rendering of skin, and his disregard for the careful drawing of West. Yet there is evident a slight dependence upon line which distinguished Stuart's technique from that of his exemplar, Gainsborough. Here Stuart has used his favorite twilled canvas whose diagonal ridges seem to reflect light through the thin liquid pigment. The painting of the hands in this portrait, as in that of Benjamin West, is unusually strong and characterful for Stuart, who was inclined to give less attention to them than to the head. He has treated the background with great simplicity, avoiding superfluous details which would distract attention from the portrait itself.This restraint was customary with Stuart, and is all the more remarkable in the work of a man who was competing with the decorative portrait painters of eighteenth-century England. They placed great emphasis upon the impressive effects that could be achieved by rich drapery, elegant poses, and elaborate backgrounds. The sketchy painting of the lace cuffs and jabot in the Lambert portrait gives additional evidence of Stuart's indifference to the meticulous treatment of detail with which his English colleagues were so deeply occupied. His free, spontaneous touch, so apparent in the Lambert portrait, has often been regarded as the fortunate result of a physical infirmity. Stuart had, from his early years, a great unsteadiness of hand which prohibited a labored method of painting. The spontaneity resulting from his free brushwork, together with his desire to achieve natural rather than artistic effects, gave Stuart's work its usual conviction.This quality of conviction is particularly to be noted in the third of the Stuart portraits exhibited at the Institute, that of Alexander Townsend, which is markedly different in character from the English works described above. It shows Stuart to have been capable of adapting himself to a new set of requirements in portraiture without sacrificing anything of his essential individuality.The Townsend portrait was painted in 1809, some years after Stuart had returned to America from England. After painting numerous historical personages in this country he had settled in Boston, and it was there that he did the portrait of Alexander Townsend, a well-known physician who had been graduated by the Harvard Medical School in 1802. Unlike the two portraits of the English period, this picture is painted on a panel. Stuart habitually used mahogany for his panels, and had the painting surface finished off with a plane whose finely notched blade produced a diagonal ridging suggestive of the twilled canvas he often used.It is a fresh and appealing work, in which Townsend is presented as a thoughtful young man with an amused and speculative eye. The general sobriety of the portrait, resulting partially from the plain dark background and partially from the severe dress of the subject, is lightened by the painting of the face. Here the clear color of the flesh, with its shimmering carnation and silver tones, provides a sparkling contrast to the simple dark coat and background.The sobriety is quite in keeping with the American portrait style of the period, reflecting the current national taste for simplicity and dignity. The years immediately preceding 1809 had seen the exercise of an American foreign policy aimed at isolation that should be cultural as well as economic and political. In public sympathy there was an attendant swing away from anything which might be identified as English and, as such, an expression of monarchical and aristocratic ideas. The elaborate English portrait style lost favor somewhat, and the rugged, honest paintings by our native artists gained appeal. Though Stuart has been called the “valedictorian of the English style” in American, his individual ability to produce a vital, convincing likeness insured his continued popularity as an artist up to the time of his death in 1828.Viewed retrospectively, the finesse of his method and his desire above all to express true character show him to have been an accomplished technician who inherited and displayed that liking for personal independence which has always been the distinguishing feature of American art and life. It is for this reason that many of our artists today are turning back to the work of Gilbert Stuart with interest and respect, and it is this which has won him the title of “America's Old Master.”Referenced Works of Art
- Portrait of Henry Lambert by Gilbert Stuart. American, 1754-1828. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James Ford Bell.
- Portrait of Master James Ward by Gilbert Stuart, painted in London in 1779. Acquired from the Dunwoody Fund, 1916.
- Portrait of Alexander Townsend by Gilbert Stuart, painted in Boston in 1809. Lent by Mrs. Vernon Wright.