Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 22, 1999
Dorinda Evans The Genius of Gilbert Stuart Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. 177 pp.; 16 color ills.; 103 b/w ills. Cloth $39.50 (0691059454)

Of all the major American painters to take up the brush during the late colonial and early federal periods, Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) has been the most overlooked by contemporary art historians. Although as a painter, he was far more virtuosic than Copley, Peale, or West, the almost exclusive application of his talent to portraits has not beckoned the scholar. Not that Stuart was by any means alone in his focus on portraiture. But unlike Copley, who at least agonized over the constriction of his ambitions, Stuart, judging from the written and visual evidence, appears to have blithely churned out likenesses without regard for the contempt in which the genre was held among an academic cohort who lionized history painting. Stuart may have created the iconic image of George Washington, but he distanced himself from the hero worship by irreverently dubbing the work his “$100 bill,” its demonstrated value to him as he made or authorized copy after copy.

Dorinda Evans wants us to take Stuart more seriously. His best portraits succeed, she argues, not merely because they present excellent likenesses—a gift even the rare detractor could not deny Stuart—but because they capture something more elusive and profound. Thus, the mid-career “Athenaeum” Washington depicts a moral intelligence that Evans tags Neoclassical, while the haunting late portrait of the aged John Adams, sunk in the embrace of a womb-like red sofa, expresses a Romantic “metaphysical incandescence.” (p. xvii) (By contrast, his first image of Adams, Stuart quipped, showed the president about to sneeze.) Both, we are told, exemplify the sublime in portraiture, characterized as “an exalting content” that, in Stuart’s work, is concentrated in the representation of the hero’s head. (p. 60) Stuart, in short, was no mere face painter, a lowly servant to personal vanity, but, in effect, a practitioner of the morally and intellectually superior genre of history painting.

The first great English apologist for the portraitist-cum-history painter, Jonathan Richardson, had argued in 1715 that for an artist to “understand Mankind, and enter into their Characters, and express their Minds as well as Faces” required “excellencies of mind and body” (Theory of Painting, pp. 19–20). Evans’s terms are no different. Stuart would have been incapable of capturing the qualities of mind, soul, and character that contemporaries perceived in his portraits had he not himself possessed great personal dignity and moral sense. That more level-headed Stuart, she believes, has been overlooked or underestimated by previous writers, then and now, more fascinated by the artist’s misadventures and by his deft and sardonic wit. Stuart told a good story, and he was fun to tell stories about. No more. Evans’s sober portrait of the artist draws on a number of new primary sources that she discovered, for which future researchers will be much in her debt. They include accounts of Stuart and his work in contemporary diaries, memoirs, and letters, and, most significantly, a series of seven interviews with the artist conducted in 1810 and 1817 by Henry Pickering, a Salem, Massachusetts, poet.

Evans’s book is organized in an entirely straightforward and familiar manner, presenting a chronological examination of Stuart’s career, with interspersed discussions of his life and work, including some new attributions. With a few exceptions, she gives the portraits equal weight and similar treatment, offering stylistic assessments of a rather generic type: “soft melting transitions in modeling” (p. 16), “carefully harmonized and contrasted colors” (p. 19), “virtuoso display of nuanced color and visible brushwork in the stereotypically English manner” (p. 56), “hand and bare head . . . bathed in a Rembrandtesque spotlight” (p. 91). The effect is individually unrevealing and cumulatively deadening. Nor, for the most part, are the descriptive characterizations much relieved by interpretation. An exception comes early, in the case of Stuart’s striking full-length portrait of William Grant, The Skater, of 1782. After five years in the studio of Benjamin West, Stuart undoubtedly chose the unusual conceit to draw attention to himself, though Evans declines to speculate much on the matter of skating. Instead, she floats the intriguing idea that Stuart, an able musician, may have wished to evoke a synaesthetic response through the harmonic tonalities of the painting. Several decades later, we learn, he did in fact articulate a scheme for associating color and musical notes. Evans drops the matter, however, without fully exploring it.

The general resistance to interpretation extends to words as well as images. In the opening paragraph of the book, for example, Evans would establish Stuart’s early predilection for portraiture with the story that “an African slave, Neptune Thurston of Newport, Rhode Island, first taught him to draw heads by demonstrating, on the top of a barrel, his own ability to capture various facial expressions with chalk” (p. 3). She offers no further commentary on this account, which surely begs analysis and contextualization within a long line of parallel cases from Pliny to Vasari and onward. If the story originated with Stuart, it would seem consistent with his efforts to represent himself as a natural, and American, talent, in this case launched on his artistic career by an even greater naif. In that respect, he had a proximate model in Benjamin West, who claimed that American Indians taught him to make paints. Any reading of Stuart’s story requires a better sense of the content of and context for the original article, but these do not appear to have been probed (Evans’s citation is to a "transcript of an unidentified article on Stuart in Newport’s Herald of the Times for February 7, 1839, Stuart file, Newport Historical Society).

At other junctures, too, the reader will wish for more fully explicated contexts. Stuart apparently exhibited with the Royal Academy only once after 1782, showing instead with the Incorporated Society of Artists, “a rival and much inferior exhibition” (p. 27). Thumbing his nose at his supposed betters was something Stuart did well, but we are offered no accounting for what might seem a professionally disadvantageous shift. In fact, Stuart was not the only artist to shun the Academy, but here and throughout the book, Evans does not introduce other artists unless they offer direct commentary on her subject. When Stuart employed drapery painters to complete figures and backgrounds in his work, was he being lazy and irresponsible (the usual judgment, which Evans does not dispute) or did that practice—common until the 1760s and even a sign of professional accomplishment—persist? What is it, exactly, that made some of Stuart’s contemporaries judge his portraits of women too strongly individualized? And how does this square with the increasingly formulaic quality of Stuart’s work after 1800—a “signature repetitiveness of design” through which, Evans argues, Stuart announced his authorship (p. 95)?

Stuart invested his energy as an artist in the painting of flesh. Evans, too, is at her best when grappling with the difficulties of expressing just how Stuart achieved the “peculiar glow of living tissue” for which he was celebrated. Judiciously chosen quotations from Stuart’s contemporaries and the artist himself support Evans’s arguments that Stuart aimed to suggest spiritual presence, the “immortal energies” that “distinguish man from the brute” (p. 110), as Joseph Hopkinson put it. In this connection, Evans might have made good use of eighteenth-century art theorists, who were emphatic about the challenge and rewards of representing flesh. For Roger de Piles, writing in The Principles of Painting (1708), a painter achieved likeness only by successfully representing character (temper), an elusive quality revealed, in his estimation, through an individual’s coloring; thus, de Piles placed the ability to capture a sitter’s coloring at the very heart of the portraitist’s enterprise. In England, both Hogarth and Reynolds—despite differences on many artistic matters—likewise recognized coloring flesh as the painter’s greatest challenge. These and other commentators on the subject support Evans’s claims for the dignity of Stuart’s enterprise and help us to understand that the artist did not abandon ambition in choosing portraiture as a lifelong specialization.

Stuart once remarked that “no man ever painted history if he could obtain employment in portraits” (p. 120)—a characteristically ironic response to the chasm between what academic painters valued and what most patrons wanted. If Stuart ever felt shortchanged as a maker of portraits, as Evans believes, he nevertheless resisted allegory as a device for raising their status and remained largely unconcerned with historical prototypes. He believed in honoring nature, but had little patience with those who insisted on a one-to-one correspondence between depicted and depiction. Evans is correct, I think, to assert that Stuart was “more concerned than once thought with interpretive or imaginary, rather than descriptive, effects” (p. xviii). But in framing his achievement in academic terms of increasing irrelevance to nineteenth-century artistic theory and practice, she underestimates Stuart’s essentially modern insistence on painterly expressivity. The reader will also miss Stuart’s verbal expressivity and the humor he so pointedly deployed on matters of art and artists. In her defense of Stuart the serious artist, Evans renders him rather bloodless, an irony given his rare ability to make those who admire his portraits see and feel the blood that gave his subjects life.

Susan Rather
Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin