The Painter and the President

Gilbert Stuart and the Creation of an Icon

The American artist Gilbert Stuart was just a few days short of his 39th birthday in late 1794 when he arrived in Philadelphia intent on painting portraits of President George Washington. Considered the foremost American portrait painter of his day, the thoughtful and highly gifted artist managed to infuse his portraits of Washington, his most famous sitter, with a dignity and presence that inspire and still awe us today. But Stuart was a complex man. He was a garrulous boaster, an impulsive prankster, an incorrigible punster and an excessive imbiber. "Yet none of these faults," writes author Stanley Meisler, "detracted from the genius and talent to create what Stuart scholar Dorinda Evans calls 'a metaphysical incandescence' in his portraits, as if, as some contemporaries reflected, he were depicting the souls as well as the features of his sitters."

Stuart, who grew up in Rhode Island, went to England to seek his fortune in 1775. After early struggles and occasional misadventures there and in Ireland, he achieved success as a portrait painter, and would spend nearly 20 years abroad before returning to what had by then become the United States and the commissions for which he is best-known.

Earlier this year the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery brought Stuart to the nation's attention with its efforts to hold on to the life-size painting of Washington by Stuart known as the Lansdowne. The portrait, which had been on long-term loan to the museum, was about to be sold by its British owner. "I don't think there's a more important single historical painting in America," gallery director Marc Pachter told host Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show. In answer to the gallery's public appeals, a generous gift of $20 million from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas enabled the museum to purchase the painting and thus ensure that this banner of Americana would remain here in the United States. An additional $10 million grant from the Reynolds Foundation will finance a national tour for the painting and provide for its display in the renovated Portrait Gallery, scheduled to reopen in 2004.

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