Gilbert Charles Stuart (Stewart) was born December 3, 1755 in Saunderstown, Rhode Island.
At the age of six, he moved with his family to Newport, Rhode Island.
He became interested in portrait painting when Scottish artist Cosmo Alexander visited Newport in 1770 and began to tutor young Gilbert.
Under the guidance of Cosmo Alexander, fourteen year old Gilbert painted his famous portrait Dr. Hunter’s Spaniels, which hangs today in the Hunter House Mansion in Newport.
Then in 1771, Gilbert Stuart moved to Scotland with Cosmo Alexander to finish his studies; however, his mentor Cosmo died in Edinburgh one year later.
Gilbert tried to maintain a living and pursue his painting career but to no avail, and so in 1773 he returned to Newport.
In 1775, just before the American Revolution began, Gilbert departed for England to become a protégé of Benjamin West. The relationship was a beneficial one, as Gilbert exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1777.
By 1782, Gilbert had met with some success, largely due to acclaim for his portrait of William Grant titled “The Skater.”
He married Charlotte Coates and became neglectful of his finances, eventually fleeing to Dublin, Ireland to avoid debtor’s prison.
Then in 1793, Gilbert fled back to the United States and New York City.
By 1795, he had saved up enough to move to Germantown, Pennsylvania (now a part of Philadelphia) and opened his own studio.
It was here that he would gain not only a foothold in the art world, but lasting fame with his portraits of many important Americans of the day.
In 1803, Gilbert opened a studio in Washington, D.C. and went on to paint a series of iconic portraits of George Washington, each of them leading in turn to a demand for copies and additional income for years to come.
One such celebrated Gilbert Stuart rendition of George Washington is the 1796 “Lansdowne,” a large portrait that hangs in the East Room of the White House to this day.
However, during the burning of Washington, D.C. by British troops in the War of 1812, this painting was saved through the intervention of First Lady Dolley Madison, and one of President James Madison’s slaves Paul Jennings.
But perhaps the most famous and celebrated of Gilbet Stuart’s portraits of George Washington is his 1796 painting known as “The Athenaeum,” even though he never completed the original portrait.
This portrait has been portrayed on the United States one dollar bill since 1869 as well as various U.S. Postage stamps.
Gilbert went on to paint a total of 130 reproductions of the Athenaeum. The original painting now hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Gilbert moved to Boston in 1805, continuing to earn critical acclaim, yet also continuing his financial troubles.
Throughout his career, Gilbert Stuart produced portraits of over 1,000 people, including the first six Presidents of the United States.
Then in 1824, he suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed. Nevertheless, Gilbert continued to paint for two years until his death in Boston on July 9, 1828 at the age of 72.
Gilbert Stuart left his family deeply in debt, and as a result his wife and daughters were unable to purchase a grave site.
Gilbert was therefore buried in an unmarked grave in the Old South Burial Ground of the Boston Common which was purchased cheaply from Benjamin Howland, a local carpenter.
When Gilbert Stuart’s family recovered from their financial troubles roughly ten years later, they planned to move his body to a family cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island. However, since his family could not remember the exact location of Gilbert’s body, it was never moved.
Today, Gilbert Stuart’s work can be found in art museums across the United States and the United Kingdom, most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Frick Collection in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Portrait Gallery in London, Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
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