Gilbert Stuart "William Woollett," oil on canvas, by the American artist Gilbert Stuart. 35.5 in. x 27.75 in. Courtesy of the Tate Britain. Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
cjr by the American artist Gilbert Stuart. 1755-1828
Gilbert Stuart was born in North Kingston, R.I., on Dec. 3, 1755. At the age of 13 or 14 he studied art with the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander in Newport. With Alexander he made a tour of the South and a journey to Edinburgh, where Alexander died in 1772. For about a year Stuart remained, poverty-stricken, in Scotland, but finally, working as a sailor, he managed to get back to America. There he executed a few portraits in a hard limner fashion. With the Revolutionary War threatening, his family, who had Tory sympathies, fled to Nova Scotia, and Stuart sailed for London, where he remained from 1775 to 1787. For the first 4 or 5 years, Stuart served as the first assistant of American expatriate painter Benjamin West, who had rescued him from poverty. From the first, Stuart showed an interest only in portraiture and had no desire to go into the branch of history painting West practiced. After his apprenticeship, Stuart became London's leading portrait painter, next to Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, whose style he emulated, as in a rare full-length portrait of William Grant of Congalton as The Skater (ca. 1782). For a while Stuart lived in splendor, but being a bad businessman and a profligate spender, he was in constant debt. He lived in Ireland from 1787 to 1792 and then returned to America to make a fortune,