For Gilbert Stuart, the most talented of all eighteenth-century American artists, the Revolution was an opportunity of an unusual sort. He had gone to London as a young man in order to study art under Benjamin West, and soon thereafter he was acclaimed as a painter of the first rank. Unlike the disciplined West however, Stuart was a profligate, drinking and spending and ranting so much that he was forced to escape his British creditors and return to the United States in 1793, in time to paint just about every person who held power, or who wanted it. At heart, he was an entrepreneur who was intent on taking full advantage of the growing market for pictures of Revolutionary heroes. A man who never expressed a political allegiance, or even a political opinion, he was nonetheless responsible for painting the most transcendent portraits of the Founders. In all, he painted Washington 114 times, and those pictures were copied by other painters, then made into authorized and unauthorized prints, and eventually one of them was put on the face of the one-dollar bill, making Stuart’s portrait the most reproduced and most seen picture in history.
The Stuart image of Washington, painted in the last year of his presidency, during the politically savage debate over the Jay Treaty, paints a picture of the great man standing above the storm of partisan politics. That was an artistic decision, and it was a political decision. It allowed Washington to be remembered—eternally--in a specified way. This lecture explores the content of Stuart’s pictures of Washington, as well as the roiling politics that shaped it.
Paul Staiti is the author of "Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution Through Painters' Eyes".