The Founding Father's Portraitist

Gilbert Stuart detail: George Washington, c. 1803/1805, Gift of Jean McGinley Draper 1954.9.2
National Gallery of Art

The Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington is one of the earliest symbols of our nation, a classroom staple, the face on our dollar bill, which is certainly fitting. If you thought Stuart was painting in a fit of patriotic fervor, well, here's the real story, reported by CBS News Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver.

Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, says, "Stuart never finished this painting. He did make a fortune duplicating his portraits of the first presidents."

Stuart painted at least 75 replicas of his most famous study of Washington, each one a bit different; the face more rounded or the lips somewhat shorter sometimes.

Stuart received $1,000, a huge sum at the time, for a copy of the famous painting.

Gilbert Stuart's paintings of Washington and the other Founding Fathers are part of a display of nearly 100 of his works in a new retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

This is the most ambitious Gilbert Stuart exhibit in 40 years.

Pachter states, "We know that this man was one of the greatest artists that America has ever produced. You don't have to say portraitist, you don't have to qualify in any other way. This is a man whose artistry was at the highest order."

Stuart was born in 1755 in Kingston, R.I., the son of an immigrant Scottish snuff miller. By age 18, young Gilbert was painting rather primitive portraits of Newport's merchant class families. But as the Revolution began, Stuart's father shipped him off to London. He spent most of the Revolutionary War outside the United States.

While his countrymen were fighting the British at home, Stuart was perfecting his art.

The extraordinary thing about Stuart is that he exploded when he hit London.

Pachter says, "This guy is not in the studio. He's outside. The idea of painting somebody outside, athletically involved, was ... an 'avant-garde' idea for the time. Then the idea that you could pull it off, that this man was on skates, because a less accomplished artist would not be convincing."

In London, as well as later in Dublin, Stuart got commissions from wealthy and powerful patrons. But along with the artist's extraordinary talent came a volatile personality.

"Moody and capable of good hatred," says Pachter. "For example, he did not like the way Joseph Bonaparte asked for the portraits of himself and his wife. Stuart refused to give them to him, and he did that to a lot of people. Years later, Thomas Sully, who was one of the great next generation of American portraitists, who was working with Stuart, stepped on the Bonaparte and Stuart said, 'Oh, that's OK. It's just some French barber.' So, boy, when he hated you, he hated you. So this is a man of many moods."

Stuart seemed to understand the strong-willed spirit of George Washington's step-granddaughter, Elizabeth Curtis Law, portraying her in a cross-armed pose usually reserved for men.

Stuart's portrait of the stern and puritanical-looking Catherine Yates is considered one of his masterpieces.

Says Pachter, "I'm afraid beauty was not the issue here, but certainly strength, industriousness, and any kind of confidence of the bourgeoisie."

Stuart definitely had a sense of humor. While he was painting the portrait of Anna Payne Cutts, Dolly Madison's younger sister, they talked about his belief that the nose is the most important feature in the face. Later, he transformed the billowing curtain behind her into a caricature of his own profile.

But it is as the painter of the first five presidents that Gilbert Stuart really earned his claim to fame. Not only Washington but also Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe sat for him.

"It's not that Stuart was saying, 'I shall do every president, and you know, they can make an appointment with me and they're not a president unless Gilbert Stuart paints them,'" Pachter explains. "It's not that, but a feeling of the appropriateness of a certain look and Gilbert Stuart could convey it."

But even being president didn't guarantee that you could actually get your portrait from Stuart. It took him 15 years to finish paintings of John and Abigail Adams. He wouldn't give Thomas Jefferson the original he sat for,finally delivering a sort of slapdash portrait, reputedly still wet when it arrived. He never handed over the originals that the first, first couple commissioned and sat for.

What we know about Stuart comes mostly from others. He left no journal or any portraits of his wife and nine children. His palette, his drawing instruments, and his snuffbox all survive.

Stuart did some of his finest work in his later years including the profound painting of 90-year-old John Adams.

Why did people continually go to Stuart if he had this reputation of not completing his work and also not giving the originals to the people who sat for him?

Pachter explains it by saying, "I think it's people choosing the higher response. They're saying, 'This is a man whose genius is helping craft the iconography of the Republic.'"

Gilbert Stuart died in 1828, penniless, yet leaving a treasury of images which, even today, help define key figures in the birth of our nation.

According to Pachter, "It's as though he was created by providence to be the right man in the right spot, to be, in visual terms, the equivalent of the Founding Fathers."