American Painters – Stuart Sully

NO truly American household has been complete for more than a hundred years without a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s (1755-1828) “Athenaeum Portrait of Washington” (Fig. 6), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Though other cities claim Stuart originals of Washington, the artist himself says, in a note at the foot of a letter from the President, preserved by his daughter : “In looking over my papers to find one that had a signature of George Washington, I found this, asking me when he would sit for his portrait, which is now owned by Samuel Williams (the Marquis of Lansdowne) of London. I have thought it proper that it should be his, especially as he owns the only original painting I ever made of Washington, except one I own myself. I painted a third, but rubbed it out. Signed, Gt. Stuart.”

Of course Stuart made many replicas of the Athenaeum head, but Washington sat only three times to the great artist. The portrait Stuart owned was sold by the artist’s widow to the Washington Association and, in 1831, was presented to the Boston Athenaeum, hence the name ; it is simply loaned to the Museum.

The Washington portrait for Samuel Williams, referred to in Stuart’s letter, was sent to England and is known as the Lansdowne Washington. It is a full-length figure, though Washington sat for the head only.

The peculiar expression around Washing-ton’s mouth is probably due to his false teeth, or rather bars. In a letter to his dentist of October 12, 1798, he writes: “I find that it is the bar alone, both above and below, that gives the lips the pouting and swelling appearance – of consequence, if this can be remedied all will be well. . . . George Washington.” This letter was written a year before the president’s death and after Stuart painted his portraits. Stuart himself said, in reference to the Athenaeum head : “When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face.” He probably meant the bars.

In writing of Gilbert Stuart we are dealing with a man who was as strong in artistic originality as the great painters of Europe. As a portrait painter he had no superior. His philosophic mind and keen insight into the motives of men revealed to him traits of character in his sitter that enabled him to paint not only a man’s reputation but his real self.

No portrait is a finer example of Stuart’s best work than that of “General Dearborn” (Fig. 7) in the Art Institute, Chicago. George C. Mason, describing the painting of General Dearborn, in his biography of Gilbert Stuart, says: “The mouth, painted as only an artist of the highest order could paint it, with a faint smile lurking around the corners, gives the idea that the figure is about to speak in reply to some remark that has been made.” Stuart painted on mahogany panels prepared under his special direction. The surface of the panel was made to look like canvas by passing the plane over the whole face, then across the surface at right angles. The arrangement of his palette was simplicity itself, yet his wonderful skill in laying in colours has left his pictures nearly as fresh to-day as a century ago. Benjamin West would say to his pupils: “It is no use to steal Stuart’s colours; if you want to paint as he does, you must steal his eyes.”

The “Portrait of Miss Clementina Beach” (Fig. 8), Fort Worth, Texas, is unique in being that of a lady who was a pupil of Stuart.

Miss Beach was one of those splendid women who helped mould the young women of our Republic. She was born in Bristol, England, and came to America about 1800, when scarcely twenty-five years old. In conjunction with Mrs. Saunders, she opened a school for young women in Dorchester, Mass. She was also ambitious to know something of portrait painting, so between the years 1810 and 1815 she sat to Gilbert Stuart for this portrait, and afterwards copied the picture, making it a standard for her own work.

That Stuart understood the mental attitude of one seeking high ideals is readily seen in the clear eyes looking at us so searchingly. He has made us feel that here is a woman with a real message, and that she has the magnetism that holds listeners, and the honest purpose that wins allegiance to the truth.

That this “Portrait of Mrs. Perez Morton” (Fig. 9), Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum, and the Athenaeum Washington were never finished is not surprising, for one of the criticisms often made of Stuart ‘was his careless painting of accessories, to which the artist would reply, “I copy the works of God, and leave the clothes to the tailor and mantuamakers.”

Stuart painted two portraits, possibly three, of Mrs. Morton, but she sat for only the first one. The finished portrait possibly is still in possession of the Clinch family, East Boston Mrs. Clinch was a granddaughter of Mrs. Morton. The latter in appreciation wrote the following lines to the artist:

“Stuart, thy portrait speaks with skill divine : Go on and may reward thy cares attend, The friend of genius must remain thy friend;

Genius is Sorrow’s child, to Want allied, Consol’d by Glory and sustained by Pride ; Unknown – unfelt – unshelter’d – uncaress’d In walks of life where worldly passions rest.”

Stuart was quick to respond:

“Who would not glory in the wreath of praise, Which M – n offers in her polished lays? I feel their cheering influence at my heart, And more complacent I review my art; Yet, ah, with Poesy, that gift divine, Compar’d, how poor, how impotent is mine !

No more my adverse fortune I lament: Enough for me that she extends the meed, Whose approbation is applause indeed.”

Mrs. Morton was called the American Sappho.

When Stuart painted the “Portrait of Henry Nichols” (Fig. 1o), Carnegie Institute, Pitts-burgh, he put on record the likeness of one of the pioneers of the eastern shores of Maryland the Nichols family came to America at the time of Lord Baltimore. Henry Nichols was a man of refinement, and hospitality was a marked feature of his Maryland mansion. Ma-son writes of this portrait: “It is related of him (Nichols) that he determined to have his portrait painted by Stuart, and to this end, at-tended by his bodyguard, he drove from Baltimore to Boston in his own carriage, giving three weeks to the journey. Stuart rewarded his enthusiasm by painting a remarkably fine head of him.”

Gilbert Stuart’s talent for painting began to show itself early in his teens. Like most children with a special talent, he was capable but wayward in school, self-willed, high-spirited, at the head and front of all mischief, and a general favourite with his companions. He worked his way to success through many vicissitudes of fortune lack of money and personal inconsistencies bringing the usual drawbacks. The words of his obituary by his friend Washington Allston (the artist) are as true of Stuart today as when written in 1828. “In the world of art Mr. Stuart has left a void that will not soon be filled. And well may his country say : ‘A great man has passed from among us.’ But Gilbert Stuart has bequeathed her what is paramount to power since no power can command it the rich inheritance of his fame.”

Thomas Sully (1783-1872) was born in England, but as most of his time was spent in America, he is classed among our artists. Not always were his portraits, especially of women, satisfactory, but occasionally there were genuine sparks of inspiration in his brush, when he would produce a masterpiece of portraiture. One of his really good portraits is of “Frances Anne Kemble” (Fig. 11), better known as Fanny Kemble, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

A beautiful and a brilliant woman was Fanny Kemble, with a heart warm and tender for the misfortunes of others. When twenty years old (1829) she began her public career at Covent Garden, London, in “Romeo and Juliet,” under her father’s management, to re-claim the fortune of her family. She took the part of Juliet; her father was Romeo and her mother the nurse. From the first she was a complete success and in three years reclaimed the family exchequer. She came to America with her father in 1832 and was enthusiastically received; from then until her death, in 1893, she spent much time in this country. Her marriage to a Georgia planter, Pierce Butler, in 1834, was not a success and after fifteen years she was divorced and resumed her maiden name. Her writings are well known, and her grandson, Owen Wister, is one of our distinguished authors today.

Sully has certainly pictured the woman of genius in the glorious eyes, wide-set and shining with love and sympathy. How modern in composition it is; everything is subordinated to the head, yet the contour of neck and shoulders and the firm hand and arm gives strength to the well-poised head. Sully was practically self-taught. From his ninth year, when his parents came from England, until grown to manhood he lived in South Carolina, away from art centres. The influence of his talents was soon felt, however, when his likenesses of southern beauties and men of affairs became known.