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: Gilbert Stuart: Portrait of Judge Coney


Judith Sobol



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Gilbert Stuart's paintings vary as much in quality as did his standard of living. A mercurial figure, with astounding talents and corresponding self-assurance, he painted portraits of some of the most prominent figures of his time, both in Britain and in the new United States. Some of these are exceptional studies of character and material; others are routine depictions of visages.The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has recently added a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Judge Daniel Coney of Maine (figure 1) to its collection. This painting joins three others by the same artist: James Ward of 1779, Henry Lambert of 1780-81, and Alexander Townsend of 1809. The Institute is fortunate in having these four paintings in its collection, because they are examples of Stuart's changing styles and enthusiasms. Together they provide an outline in which to view his career.Briefly, because his biography has been chronicled elsewhere (the most pleasant being E. P. Richardson's short introductory essay to the catalog of the 1967 exhibition Gilbert Stuart, Portraitist of the Young Republic, for the Rhode Island School of Design), let us fit our four portraits into his career.Stuart was born in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, on December 3, 1755. Until he met Cosmo Alexander, a Scottish portrait painter who was in Newport in 1769, his circumstances were humble and his life uneventful. In 1771 Stuart became Alexander's apprentice and returned with him to Edinburgh. Unfortunately, the Scot died in 1772 and Stuart was left to rely on his own meager resources. He worked his way back to Rhode Island and, using what he had learned from Alexander, painted rather flat, linear portraits of Newport merchants until he sailed to England in September of 1775.Stuart's initial London experience was an unhappy one and, according to his daughter Jane and his friend Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, crushed his normally flamboyant and ebullient spirit. In the summer of 1777 Benjamin West, the most famous American painter of his day (who was by then living in London and was history painter to George III) accepted Stuart as an assistant. Their association lasted until 1782, and it was during this period that two of the Minneapolis portraits were painted, James Ward and Henry Lambert.The Ward portrait (figure 2) displays Stuart's style at the moment when it relied most heavily on that of Gainsborough: it is fluid, fresh, and altogether charming. Henry Lambert, likewise, is a fine example of English rococo style (figure 3). A typical portrait from the artist's English period, it shows the subject, down to the fifth button on his waistcoat, confidently confronting the viewer (Stuart was once accused of being unable to paint anything below the fifth button of a gentlemen's waistcoat because his portraits are so often that length).Portraits like James Ward and Henry Lambert, and particularly his famous painting The Skater (National Gallery of Art, Washington), enabled Stuart to leave West's studio and establish himself independently. He became a very successful portrait painter in the London of Reynolds, Romney, and Gainsborough. He also proudly lived beyond his means, and in the late summer of 1787 fled to Ireland to escape debts and prison.By 1793, Stuart was in New York, having left Ireland for the same reason. There, he began to apply his considerable talents to depict the most famous Americans of his day. His three versions of George Washington (and their numerous replicas and copies) are firmly established icons in the minds of most of us. Between 1803 and 1805 Stuart resided in Washington. He left Washington for Boston in 1805, and lived there until his death on July 9, 1828, at the age of 72. Our other two portraits date from this last period.The portrait of Alexander Townsend (figure 4) is a classic example of what has made Stuart's American portraits so much admired. Townsend was in his middle twenties when the portrait was done, and Stuart shows him with all the freshness and vitality of youth. The brushstroke is free and light, the colors delicate and translucent. Stuart always wanted to portray his sitters in animated, informal poses; to accomplish this he attempted to engage them in diverting conversations. In the Townsend portrait he was successful, for he has captured the spirit of the young man.The Coney portrait depicts a sitter different in character and age, and differs stylistically as well. Daniel Coney was a member of a distinguished New England family. He was the second son of Deacon Samuel Coney, who moved his family to Hallowell, Maine (near Augusta) from Massachusetts in 1777. Daniel was born in 1752 and served in the Revolutionary forces; he became adjutant of an infantry regiment under General Gates and witnessed Burgoyne's surrender. He married Susanna Curtis and followed his father to Maine in 1778. He was "eminent in his profession" and also politically prominent.1 He represented his home city in the Massachusetts General Court, where he was a member of its Executive Council. He was a member of the second Electoral College and cast his vote to reelect George Washington and John Adams president and vice president respectively. He was a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, then judge of probate for Kennebec County. At that time Maine was part of Massachusetts; when the regions were divided into two states, Coney was Augusta's delegate to Maine's constitutional convention, and then became judge of probate under that new constitution. He held office until 1823, resigning due to age: he was 71.Coney was all early and avid supporter of educational institutions. He was a trustee of Hallowell Academy, an overseer of Bowdoin College, and the founder and endower of Cony Female Academy in Augusta.2 The Academy was built in 1815 at the judge's own expense. He was the father of four daughters and, as he wrote to prospective trustees that year:"The importance of female education has for a number of years been a subject of my most serious and anxious solicitude..." He recommended instruction gratis to such number of orphans and other females, under sixteen years of age, as shall be certified by a committee "of their board as worthy the bounty. [sic]"3The subjects to be taught here were "various useful and ornamental branches of female education," including "reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, etc. with every kind of useful and ornamental needle work, print work, etc."4North describes the judge's character thusly:Judge Cony was a man of vigorous intellect, sound judgment, quick perception and ready resource. He was uniformly successful in whatever he resolutely undertook, was a strong ally, a safe and vigorous leader, and he attained to an influence with his fellow men which few acquire. Decision and firmness were conspicuous traits in his character, while he was always cool, calculating and sagacious.5Judge Daniel Coney died January 21, 1842, when he was 90.When was this portrait done and how should it be evaluated? In the summer of 1805, Gilbert Stuart moved to Boston. Earlier, he had been commissioned by James Bowdoin, founder of Bowdoin College, to do a portrait of Jefferson and one of Madison. The portraits were hung in Bowdoin's home in Maine by 1807; in 1813 they went to the college. Stuart even visited them there in 1821.Lawrence Park dates the Coney portrait about 1815. It was possibly done after the Jefferson and Madison portraits were sent to Bowdoin College, where the judge, an overseer, must have seen them. 1815 seems a suitable date; the judge would have been 63 years old. We know him to have been a vigorous man, which can account for the youthfulness apparent in his face except around the mouth.The painting is executed in oil on a panel. It measures 24 by 28 inches (sight) and is in good condition. Coney is shown half-length, seated in three-quarter view, favoring his right side. He sits in a gilded directoire armchair upholstered in a warm red velvet. His right hand rests on a book; he wears a thin ring on his middle finger. Behind the judge's left arm is a table covered with a cloth of the same color as the velvet. Atop this, two volumes are stacked together on their sides; another stands upright, seemingly supported by the painting's frame, a fourth leans against this volume. The books are bound in light brown with labels of the same red; on one book we can make out the letters "ENNE".6 Coney is dressed in a simple high-collared black coat, with a white standing collar and neckcloth. He is shown against a background that ranges from pale to dark beige gray. His hair is cut short and combed forward on his forehead. His sideburns and eyebrows have not yet turned white to match the rest of his hair. The judge looks resolutely out at the viewer with blue gray eyes. His mouth is firmly set.The painting has an odd halo of crackle around the head. The head itself displays none of the fluent brushstroke or translucency we are drawn to in most Stuart portraits. It is vaguely dull.One always wants to speculate about how an artist could paint brilliantly at one sitting and dully at the next. E. P. Richardson notes that Stuart was able to paint "exceedingly perfunctory portraits" and occasionally displayed, "let us admit, a blandness in mood and characterization that delighted his contemporaries, and the Edwardian period, but that stands in his way today."7 Richardson goes on to observe that Stuart gave us no surprises after moving to Boston. When a sitter aroused his interest, his portraits were still unsurpassed (see his painting of the elderly John Adams at the Smithsonian Institution's National Collection of Fine Arts). When he had no sympathy for the sitter, however, there was "a relaxation of interest and ambition."8Stuart's student Jouett tells us Stuart preferred his earlier paintings, for he said "the reasons why my paintings were of a richer character thirty years ago: then it was a matter of experiment; now everything comes so handy that I put down everything so much in place that for want of opportunities...[I] lose the richness."9 Perhaps, as Barbara Novak O'Doherty suggests, some faces just didn't interest Stuart.10 Coney seems to have been one of these.Let's speculate about why Coney didn't arouse Stuart's interest and sympathy. One of Coney's foremost achievements was his foundation and endowment of the Cony Female Academy. Its curriculum, as we have seen, included instruction in art. Coney also supported other educational institutions that must have included art in their curricula. Stuart had strong opinions on art education, relates James Thomas Flexner. When wealthy citizens of Boston discussed founding an art academy, Stuart said that trustees of such institutions had more money than taste, and as for formal instruction, it merely encouraged the incompetent. "Bye and bye," he shouted, "you will not by any chance kick your foot against a dog kennel but out will start a portrait painter." Stuart foresaw modern conditions under which you cannot by any chance step on a young lady's toe at a debutante party but "ouch" will be said by a writer or painter.11How could Coney, who founded his academy in 1815, have aroused the sympathy and imagination of so opinionated a painter, for whom he sat in perhaps the same year? Idle speculation, but perhaps an explanation for the perfunctory quality of the painting.In 1926, Lawrence Park reports, the painting hung in the old Williams House in Augusta, but it was owned by Mrs. Seth C. Beach of Watertown, Mass., and Mrs. Henry T. Whipple of Portland, Maine.12 It passed from there to the collection of Esther S. Fraser of Cambridge, Mass. (who believed the painting was made in Boston about 1812 and was interned there for about a year, due to the embargo on shipping during the war of 1812).13 Later Mrs. Allyn K. Ford purchased the painting, and generously donated it to the Institute in 1975.Before coming to Minneapolis, the painting seems to have been on public exhibition only once, at the Union League Club in New York in February of 1922. An engraving of it has been reproduced in Nason's book and (slightly altered) in North's. Park says it was engraved on steel, in vignette, by A. H. Ritchie. This may be the plate used in the two historical volumes.The painting is a valuable addition to the collection for two reasons. It is, first, a record of an important figure in the political and educational history of this nation. Second, it is a document that speaks of Gilbert Stuart, the mercurial painter, who sought to use portraiture as a means to search out his subjects' spirits. When it was a spirit he felt akin to, as that of James Ward, Henry Lambert, or Alexander Townsend, the image was alive with stroke and color. When it was a spirit he felt no sympathy toward-and this author suggests Coney was such a spirit-the image is merely faithful.Judith Sobol is Executive Director of Don't Tear It Down, a citizen's action group for urban conservation in Washington, D.C. She was formerly Assistant Chairman of the Education Division and Supervisor of Tours and Interpretive Services at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.Endnotes
  1. Emma Huntington Nason, Old Hallowell on the Kennebec (Augusta, Maine, 1909), p. 30. Although we would assume that, as a judge, Coney's profession was law, James N. North, in his History of Augusta (Augusta: Clapp and North, 1870), refers to his "preparing himself for the medical profession" (p. 170) and refers to him as "Dr." Coney (p. 171). He goes on to describe him as very active in medicine and a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society (p. 172).
  2. The spelling of the family name varies; it is often "Cony."
  3. North, pp. 422-3.
  4. Ava Harriet Chadbourne, A History of Education in Maine (Orono, Maine, 1936), p. 131. Chadbourne here quotes the American Advocate of March 31, 1816. Cony Female Academy is survived by Cony High School.
  5. North, p. 172. Anecdotes about the judge appear on pp. 172 and 201.
  6. Family tradition says this is a volume of Seneca, his favorite author.
  7. E. P. Richardson, Gilbert Stuart, Portraitist of the Young Republic (Providence: Rhode Island School of Design, 1967), p. 20.
  8. Ibid., p. 32.
  9. James Thomas Flexner, America's Old Masters (New York: Dover Publications, 1967), p. 302.
  10. Barbara Novak O'Doherty, "Philosopher of the Face," Artnews 66, no. 4 (Summer 1967): 44.
  11. James Thomas Flexner, Gilbert Stuart (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), pp. 169-170.
  12. Lawrence Park, Gilbert Stuart (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1926), p. 234.
  13. Letter of Mrs. Ford in file at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, n.d.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Gilbert Stuart
    American, 1755-1826
    Judge Daniel Coney of Maine, about 1815
    Oil on canvas, 28-1/4 x 22-3/4 inches
    Gift of Mrs. Allyn K. Ford, 75.29
  2. Gilbert Stuart
    James Ward, 1779
    Oil on canvas, 29-1/2 x 25 inches
    The William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 16.2
  3. Gilbert Stuart
    Henry Lambert, 1780-81
    Oil on canvas, 30-1/4 x 25-1/8 inches
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James Ford Bell, 31.36
  4. Gilbert Stuart
    Alexander Townsend, 1809
    Oil on canvas, 33-3/8 x 26-3/8 inches
    Gift of the heirs of Mrs. Vernon A. Wright, 51.34
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Source: Judith Sobol, "Gilbert Stuart: Portrait of Judge Coney," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 63 (1976-1977): 110-115.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009