"The Man Who Painted Washington" from Edcon Publishing.

"George Washington" by Stuart Gilbert, 1803


Someone you will read about: Gilbert Stuart-an American painter

Gilbert Stuart was an irresponsible, temperamental rogue, but he was a talented artist as well.

Even though George Washington died in 1799, just about every American recognizes him on sight. From the walls of classrooms, post offices and meeting halls all over our country, the same familiar portrait gazes down. Sometimes people are curious about the lower portion of that painting, which has a white spot that looks like a misplaced cloud, but not even that can diminish the painted dignity of our first president's features. During his life time he was the subject of many portraits, but George Washington clothed in that cloud is the George Washington most of us know best. In fact, Mark Twain once said that if Washington were ever to return to life and be found not to resemble that portrait, he would surely be rejected as an impostor.

In contrast, few people today know anything about Gilbert Stuart. Yet, Stuart, the painter of that conventional Washington portrait, was also famous in his own day. Fame is perhaps the only way in which subject and painter were similar, however.

Washington is remembered as honest and sober, worthy of trust and respect. Stuart, when he is remembered at all, is thought of somewhat differently. His speech was colorful, his habits reckless, his personal and professional life in constant turmoil. Regarded as perhaps the foremost portrait painter of his time, he did more than one thousand pictures and earned huge sums of money, but never enough to keep him out of debt.

Catherine Brass Yates, 1793
As a boy, young Stuart spent much of his time stirring up mischief and leading his schoolmates in their pranks. One such episode took place on a night when Gilbert and a companion, armed with a gun and a bag of blood from the butcher's shop, concealed themselves outside a certain cobbler's open window. While one boy fired, the other squirted blood on the bald head of the cobbler, who fell shrieking to the floor, apparently convinced that he was fatally wounded. Not until a doctor, summoned by the cobbler's wife, had washed the blood
from the "wound" was the truth discovered. Gilbert and his friend, having stayed a little too long to watch the fun, were shortly found in bed still wearing their shoes and were punished for their cruel prank.

Between pranks, Gilbert also found time to draw pictures, often with a lump of clay or soft stone. These were so well done they attracted the attention of a local doctor who presented him with brushes and paints, and commissioned the first Gilbert Stuart painting of two dogs lying under a table. A professional painter, persuaded by the doctor, took the boy as a pupil, and so began his rise to the top of the first hill in a life which would prove to be a perpetual roller coaster ride.

When his teacher decided to take him to study in Scotland, it must have seemed an opportunity almost too good to be true. And so it proved to be, for in less than a year the teacher was dead and Gilbert found himself, at the age of sixteen, alone in a strange country, destitute and forlorn. Eventually, he enlisted in service on a coal boat, which amounted to little more than slavery, and worked his way back home. Though he loved to tell exaggerated tales of his own experiences, good and bad, he found this period of his life so distasteful that he was never known to speak of it afterward.

Not long after his arrival back in America, his fortunes once more took an upward turn, and the handsome young portrait painter was caught up in a round of parties and social events. At the same time he was beginning to develop his own unique approach to painting, less artificial and elegant than the conventional style of the time. But the coming of the American Revolution put another temporary end to his hopes. Though Stuart later insisted he had really wanted to join General George Washington's Revolutionary Army, the fact is that in June or July of 1775 he boarded one of the last ships sailing for England.

Abagail Adams (Mrs. John Adams) 1800
Arriving there with no plans and little money, he quickly found himself in the same lonely and destitute state he'd been in four years before. Over the next several years, though, a series of events brought about remarkable changes, and by 1786 Stuart's success was great enough to surpass his wildest hopes. He stood at the peak of his chosen profession, lived in grand style, and made huge sums of money. Yet his life was in some ways in more of a turmoil than when he was poor. He always managed to spend more than he earned, and in the autumn of 1787, he and his wife and children completely disappeared, leaving behind a mountain of debts.

After a gap of some months they turned up in Ireland. According to one story, told by Stuart himself, he was thrown into an Irish debtors' prison from which he painted his way out, earning the needed 110ney by painting portraits 0: the jailer and other local off;,'ills. From Ireland, he traveled back to the United States, leaving behind a great many portraits, none of them finished, for which he had been paid in advance.

Stuart was immediately and immensely popular in New York, as a painter if not always as a person. Sometimes charming, with a wealth of jokes and witty stories to tell, he also had a terrible temper and would attack anyone he suspected of criticizing him. Certain remarks of Washington's Secretary of War were so distasteful to him that he refused to finish the man's portrait, using it instead as a gate for his pigpen.

When a husband complained that Stuart's portrait of his wife did not make her beautiful, Stuart replied that you couldn't bring a portrait painter a potato and expect him to paint a peach. Another woman, who chatted more than he liked, took a look at her partly finished portrait and declared, "Why, Mr. Stuart, you have painted me with my mouth open." "Madam," he replied, "your mouth is always open," and refused, in typical fashion, to finish the picture. Despite such difficulties, he did complete a great many portraits during this time, including four which have since been called masterpieces.

Famous as he was, Stuart's chance to surpass all his previous triumphs came with the painting of that portrait of George Washington. Whether or not we'd be right in regarding a Washington who didn't look like that picture as an impostor, people at the time found it a marvel. The demand for copies was so great that Stuart continued to dash them off, sometimes at the rate of one every two hours, almost until his death. Though later critics have declared these hasty copies to be of very poor quality, everyone wanted one and paid well for them, so that Stuart called them his "hundred dollar bills."

In order to make copies, of course, he needed to keep the original portrait, and so he did. Each time Mrs. Washington would call to inquire about her husband's picture, Stuart would insist it wasn't finished, pointing to that empty space that looked like a cloud, until finally the Washingtons themselves had to settle for one of the copies.

Thomas Jefferson, 1821
His reputation as the greatest painter in America did little to relieve Stuart's personal problems. In the later years of his life he was frequently drunk and always angry with someone, yet still in great demand. As always before, he had better periods and worse periods, but the roller coaster was heading down the last long hill. His later portraits show evidence of a shaking hand, and he seems for some reason to have painted his own large and unusual ears onto a variety of subjects.

The man who had painted not only Washington but Presidents Adams, Jefferson and Madison, and so many others as well, and who lived a life of such achievement and turmoil, died at the age of seventy-two, deep in bitterness and, of course, in debt.


1. Gilbert Stuart's "hundred dollar bills" were _________________
a. the original set of currency.
b. counterfeit money.
c. a rare collection.
d. portraits of George Washington.

2. According to the selection, which of the following statements is not true?
a. Gilbert Stuart is as popular as his paintings.
b. Gilbert's paintings were popular in his day.
c. Gilbert produced hundreds of paintings.
d. Stuart made a great deal of money.

3. George Washington had _______________
a. the original of his portrait.
b. a copy of his own portrait.
c. a cloud painted on his portrait.
d. his portrait returned to England.

4. Gilbert Stuart was _________________
a. temperamental and talented.
b. trustworthy and honest.
c. happy with his life.
d. clever and well-liked.

5. This selection could be found in a book entitled __________
a. "Famous Artists of the 18th Century."
b. "The President's Cabinet."
c. "A Defeated Statesman."
d. "European Painters."

6. The people of the 1700's put up with Gilbert Stuart because he ____________
a. was considered a great artist.
b. was a perfectionist at his work.
c. worked for small sums of money.
d. was amusing and self-critical.

7. First, Stuart's teacher took him to study in Scotland. Then, his teacher died there. Next,_______________
a. Stuart painted portraits of George Washington.
b. Stuart joined Washington's army.
c. Stuart painted Irish officials.
d. Stuart enlisted on a coal boat.

8. The white spot on Washington's portrait remained there because _________
a. Stuart claimed it was not finished so he could keep it.
b. Stuart liked white clouds and set the Presidents in them.
c. Stuart died before he could finish the painting.
d. the President requested that it be done that way.

9. Another name for this selection could be _____________
a. "A Portrait of Two Men."
b. "A Life of Ease."
c. "A Dream Come True."
d. "Scandal in Washington."

10. This selection is mainly about ___________________
a. the creation of a masterpiece.
b. the people of 18th Century America.
c. the life of our first President.
d. the life of a once famous painter.

Gilbert Stuart Show from Youtube:



More Gilbert Stuart Paintings; from the National Gallerty of Art. Click on the link to view the painting, then click again on the painting to see it larger.

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