American / Birthdays / Look Back: Art History / Painting

Happy 257th Birthday Gilbert Stuart!

Gilbert Stuart was irritable, depressive, vain and difficult. And he painted some amazing portraits.

So amazing, in fact, that if you’re reading this blog you’ve definitely seen and are almost certainly deeply familiar with his most famous portrait.


That’s right, the portrait of George Washington on the one-dollar bill is the work of this crabby yet charismatic 18th century artist. So whether you’re a small time tipper or a big time stripper living in the States, you’ve looked Stuart’s most famous work thousands of time.

He never finished this first portrait, known as the Atheneaum. However he did complete nearly one hundred other portraits of Washington, many of them based on this original. Beyond that he painted the first six presidents of the United States, King George III, Sir Joshua Reynolds and in total produced over 1,000 portraits.


George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), 1796, oil on canvas, Jointly owned by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Despite his periods of temper, Stuart also had some charm when it was needed. He used to use the power of his conversation to draw out his sitters.

But, legend has it, he had a hard time accessing Washington’s inner vitality. Whether or not this is true, Washington hardly sparkles in this image.

But of course, Washington’s actions – whatever you may think of them – speak for themselves in the chronicles of history.

But where does that leave us? How can we look at Stuart’s portraits and separate the big personalities of so many famous sitters from the visual beauty of the paintings?

Remember, there are two ways of being before the art.

So let’s look at this portrait of an unknown sitter, which I won’t tell you a thing about (because I don’t know anything about it).

Man in a Green Coat, 1779-85, 28 1/2 x 23 1/2 in. (72.3 x 59.7 cm), oil on canvas

Man in a Green Coat, 1779-85, 28 1/2 x 23 1/2 in. (72.3 x 59.7 cm), oil on canvas

Try just looking at it for a bit and decide what you think of Stuart’s technique, the sitter and the composition overall.

Once you get over the initial strangeness of the sitter’s hair and expression, you can start to see the painting for what it is. Try looking one part at a time.

You can do what I like to do and start in the background and say in your head what you see at each point. What is in the background here? Trees probably, but look how wonderfully he’s created a sense of light with those ambiguous blobs.

And what sort of building is he sitting in front of? A home? A public building? Where geographically do you think this is?

And what about the man himself? He’s well dressed, reading a book and has a thoughtful look – right? What could he be reading? Is he a student? A young lawyer? Or a man of society?

We’ll probably never know, but the more you look at the painting, the more involved you become. But you still have to ask questions actively to get into it.

It’s easy when you’re looking at a portrait to be overawed by your perceived knowledge of the sitter’s personality. So the next time you find yourself looking at a portrait of someone famous, treat it like it’s the anonymous image of the man in the green coat. Maybe try the technique next time you’re at a museum, looking through the arts section of the paper – or even the next time you find yourself holding a dollar bill.


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