Gilbert Stuart

Article by Darren Rousar.

Stuart-SelfPortrait-1778Gilbert Stuart, Self Portrait, 1778

Gilbert Stuart was one of America’s great portrait painters. This self portrait was done while Stuart was in England, studying with another American ex-patriot painter, Benjamin West.

Stuart-SelfPortrait-1778-DetailGilbert Stuart, Self Portrait (detail)

In June of 1816, Matthew Jouett (an infantry Captain during the War of 1812) journeyed from his home in Kentucky to Boston, in order to study painting with Gilbert Stuart. After four months under Stuart, he felt he had obtained enough information to strike out on his own. The quotes in this post come from his notebook of 1816 (Notes Taken by M. H. Jouett while in Boston from conversations on painting with Gilbert Stuart, Esquire) which Kentucky (as Stuart called him) claimed were direct. Additional quotes come from an 1861 edition of The Crayon. Although The Crayon’s article did not attribute the content to Jouett, it has since been proven to be by him, due to the similarities with his notebook version.

The advantage of having the easel before the sitter is that by so doing you are enabled to embrace both at once. The eye, from practice, passes from one to the other with great rapidity. . . One should set a good way from his easel and early accustom themselves to look at the subject and not at the features – a ludicrous criticism upon mincing painters who paint all the features correctly but detached and disconnected.

Matthew Jouett (1816)
“The eye ought to be accustomed to distances and directions from point to point. It is more important to give a prominent measurement of distances than a set of mincing curves. . . The first drafting of the head or figure is compared to a statuary where the great corners and rude masses are blocked off first, or a carpenter trying up his timber, or shoe maker cutting out his leather. A strict attention to every manner of mechanical thing particular enjoined.”

swdetGilbert Stuart, George Washington, The Athenaeum Portrait, 1796 (detail)

“To produce a good effect you must copy Nature. Leave Nature for an imaginary effect and you lose all. Nature as Nature cannot be exceeded, and your object it is to copy Nature. The hight of folly is to look at anything else to produce that copy. . . The great danger of a man becoming a mannerist is from a too little care to the studies of Nature.”

“Van Dyck would copy nature. If a sitter had false eyes they were put down as false. Reynolds would not. He delighted too much in imaginary beauty. Van Dyck was so true to nature that you had only to see the hair to know the complexion and vice versa.”

The Athenaeum Portrait (detail shown above) was painted directly from life and most references claim that it is unfinished. The painting was a study, to be used as a basis for future copies. Stuart and his daughters used the painting as reference for 130 finished copies. It is also the source for Washington’s likeness on America’s $1 bill.

It is known that Washington was having painful difficulties with his false teeth at the time this portrait was painted. Legend has it that Stuart had him remove the dentures and stuff cotton in his mouth to fill in the empty space.

For an absorbing look at George Washington’s relationships to his portrait painters, see The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art.


“Drawing the brush up and down in painting is monstrous. This is the proper stroke.” -See the image above, from the background of Stuart’s 1796 portrait of George Washington (the Athenaeum Portrait).

“To paint with great beauty and freedom, endeavor to put down what you see. Without being at all curious as to the shape of your strokes, but the blotching, plump, round stroke seems to suit, which this best and is to be recommended because of its appropriateness.”

smpmGilbert Stuart, Mrs. Perez Morton, 1802 (unfinished)

“In the commencement of all portraits the first idea is an indistinct mass of light and shadows, or the character of the person as seen in the heel of the evening in the gray of the morning, or at a distance too great to discriminate features with exactness. That in every object, there is one light, one shadow and one reflection, and that is from a judicious entering into and departing from either of them that mark the harmony of a painting. That there are three grand stages in a head as in an argument or plot of any sort: a beginning, middle and end; and to arrive at each of these perfect stages should be the aim of the painter. Illustrated in three heads shown in a double mirror, or two mirrors, where you perceive the effects of distance upon face.”

smpm-detGilbert Stuart, Mrs. Perez Morton (detail)

sgw2Gilbert Stuart, George Washington, 1795

“I have often very often roughened my second and third sitting that it might be thrown back and by having to use more color produced a richer effect. That is why my paintings were of a richer character 30 years ago, for then it was a matter of experiment. Now everything comes so handy that I put down everything so much in the correct place at once that I lose the richness.”

swdet2Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (detail)

“Drawing the features distinctly and carefully with chalk is a loss of time; all studies should be made with the brush in hand. It is nonsense to think of perfecting oneself in drawing before one begins to paint. . . Drawing outlines without the brush is like a man learning the notes without a fiddle, or learning the notes on a violin without a bow.”

Perhaps the best biography on Gilbert Stuart is Dorinda Evans’, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart.

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