Sketchy Inspiration #16: Gilbert Stuart

Posted: March 26th, 2012 | Artist: | Category: Inspiration | Tags: , | 1 Comment

It’s one of the most recognizable portraits in the history of art (not bad for an incomplete painting), but few people could tell you off-hand who painted this iconic portrait of George Washington. Sometimes referred to as “The Athenaeum”, the oil-on-canvas, 39.76 in. × 34.65 in. work lives in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and adorns the United States one-dollar bill, whose symbolic value, for good and ill, far outweighs its worth as legal tender.

Gilbert Stuart began the painting in 1796 and never finished it. Instead of giving it to Washington, he retained the portrait and used it to paint 130 copies, which he sold for $100 each. From the National Portrait Gallery website:

“Stuart recognized that he should use this portrait to fulfill his many orders for replicas and received Washington’s permission to keep it. Washington requested a replica for himself, but Stuart never delivered the portraits to the Washington family. The strikingly fresh aspect of this life portrait comes from Stuart’s application of subtly varied skin tones in separate, unblended touches of the brush. His technique is visible even in the shaded areas under the chin, where Stuart alternated darker and lighter flesh tones to indicate shadow and reflected light. The president’s white-powdered hair and blue eyes stand out in contrast.”

Despite failing to deliver the goods to Washington, Stuart went on to have a prolific career as a portraitist of political figures. Quoth John Adams: “Speaking generally, no penance is like having one’s picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation.”

Stuart was born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, on Dec. 3, 1755. He died on July 9, 1828.

The Sketchy Inspiration series spotlights artists from around the world. To view the series in full, visit To nominate an artist to be featured in the series, contact us.

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One Comment on “Sketchy Inspiration #16: Gilbert Stuart”

  1. 1 swampthing said at 1:23 pm on March 26th, 2012:

    John Vanderlyn was pretty ‘sketchy’ also.