Gilbert Stuart was a bit of a wild man – cantankerous, charming, often irresponsible, sometimes belligerent – a character I was not at all expecting from his stately portraits of George Washington. I love his portraits. This book made me fall under the spell of the man.
Stuart was very quotable, and we hear his voice in these pages. Describing the onerous task of painting Washington, Stuart wrote to a colleague, "...a vacuity spread across his countenance, most appalling to paint." Stuart tried every topic to get the president to show some life. Finally Stuart mentioned horses, and that did the trick. Amusing anecdotes abound in this book.
Stuart learned to sketch faces and caricatures from an African slave, and assimilated the fashionable painterly English idiom studying Reynolds, Gainsborough and Romney in London. We read about these and other artistic influences in the course of his career in eight American cities and the British Isles.
The book is a series of write-ups on one portrait after another. This can be fascinating or a bit tedious depending on the life story of the sitter. I read with great interest about the headstrong American feminist who married Napoleon's younger brother and the scandal this caused on both sides of the Atlantic. I was amused at Stuart's refusal to relinquish the portraits of John Adams and his wife for over a decade. He would not be hurried, even by a president.
Stuart was famous for his ability to convey the nuances of character in his portraits. You can see the truth of this in the excellent reproductions, which are large and clear.
The text is rich in details about Stuart's work habits – his flow of conversation designed to relax his sitters, his distain of drawing, his interest in physiognomy studies. We also learn the significance of costume, props and backgrounds in the various portraits.
This book is a feast of portraits of all sorts of people. Stuart painted five American presidents as well as Washington's favorite circus performer. He painted the old landed aristocracy and the new merchant elite, a shifty Spanish spendthrift and a saintly bishop, a Mohawk chief, and a Scottish lawyer in ice skates. Their stories unfold in these pages. We learn of marital infidelities and financial woes, as we look into faces aglow with personality.
Stuart was the foremost painter in the early days of the new American nation, and this book is a treasure trove of information about him and his portraits. As a great admirer of his work, I was thrilled with this book.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2004
Beautifully done overview of the greater works of Gilbert Stuart.....and the special section of George Washington portraits is astounding. I've not seen some of these portraits of Washington before. As Gilbert Stuart is one of my favorite artists, this book is a real treat for me. The text is clear and well written and follows Stuart's career from the vantage point of his international residences. Anyone who truly loves portraiture will thoroughly enjoy this fine Yale University production. I'm hopeful to be able to view the originals that this publication promotes of Stuart's work scheduled to be on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington in early '05. This one's a keeper...........I only wish it was a bit more complete, though it certainly makes a valiant effort to present a fine sampling of Stuart's greatest work.
3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2005
This book covers portraiture during the American revolutionary war period. I heartily recommend this book to anyone. It discusses biography, history, and art in a way that is lets the reader reach a new levels of understanding about governance, politics, and leadership.