Gilbert Stuart was the foremost American artist who created portraits of many prominent figures in American history in the early 1800’s. Born in Rhode Island in 1755, Stuart received early training from an unnamed Scottish artist and continued on to receive training from Benjamin West (1738-1820) during a trip to London in 1775. He traveled throughout Europe for the next twenty years, exhibiting and painting in London and Dublin, Ireland. In 1782, he exhibited his portrait The Skater (Portrait of William Grant) at London’s Royal Academy, which brought his portraits into mainstream focus. He began selling his paintings at high prices as his popularity increased becoming one of the most costly portraitures in that time. He returned to New York in 1793 where he stayed for two years before moving to Philadelphia for eight years. It was in New York that he painted his first prominent American figure, John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States. Through this commission, he was granted a letter of recommendation to George Washington, wherein Stuart gained his first commission to paint the first President of the United States. In 1803, he relocated to Washington D.C. for two years before settling in Boston, Massachusetts where he completed the Gibbs-Coolidge Set, the only surviving depiction of all five first presidents.
As Stuart’s popularity grew, he remained one of the highest paid artists in that time though he was constantly bankrupt due to his extravagant lifestyle and poor business skills. He produced nearly 1,100 portraits and though prolific throughout his life, he was rumored to be irritatingly slow in producing portraits with a few taking nearly fifteen years to complete. Before his death in 1828 at the age of seventy-two, Stuart retained many followers and students and was well-known as a pleasant conversationalist. Despite his quirks, Gilbert Stuart was undoubtedly a talented portraiture artist in his time, earning a title as the “Father of American Portraiture”.