Putting new life into portraits of early presidents


Joanna Dunn, conservator at the National Gallery of Art, with portraits by Gilbert Stuart. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)
John Kelly
Columnist July 3, 2012

If I told you to imagine George Washington, odds are that the image that would pop into your head was put there by the son of an immigrant Scottish snuff-grinder, a man who fled London — then Dublin — one step ahead of his creditors, an artist who entertained his subjects with his easy patter, wowed them with the surety of his strokes, and infuriated them with what today we might call poor follow-through.

He was Gilbert Stuart, America’s first great portrait painter.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“By all accounts he was a very boisterous and fun person,” says Joanna Dunn, a conservator at the National Gallery of Art. We’re in the museum’s conservation lab, sun streaming through north-facing windows of the West Building, six works by Stuart up on easels, including portraits of John and Abigail Adams. All are in various stages of work, part of the conservation of a whopping 16 Stuart paintings funded by a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

“People said they enjoyed sitting for him because it hardly felt like sitting for a portrait at all,” Joanna says. “But he was somewhat problematic because he sometimes didn’t deliver your painting.”

Take the Adamses, for example. Stuart started their portraits in 1800. He didn’t deliver them until 1815.

“And that was after harassing him for years,” Joanna says.

Maybe Stuart was bipolar (that’s what art historian Dorinda Evans argues in a forthcoming book). Maybe he just had poor impulse control.

Born in Rhode Island, son of a snuff-grinder, Stuart was a precocious artist who went to England to study under the famed Benjamin West. He hit the big time with a full-length portrait of a Sir William Grant. Rather than depicting Sir William standing stiffly in his study, hand upon a globe or clutching a document, he painted him ice-skating. It was a sensation.

Stuart made a lot of money, and he spent a lot of money. Unfortunately, he usually spent more than he made, prompting him to leave London for Dublin and Dublin for a return trip to America. It was then that he set his sights on his biggest quarry: George Washington.

Stuart put his sitters at ease by talking to them about what they knew. He would discuss famous battles with military men, famous trials with lawyers. With wealthy farmers he spoke of crops and livestock, able, one biographer wrote, to “astonish with his profound knowledge of manures.”

Even so, for some reason he didn’t get along with Washington. Perhaps he had obsessed about the president for so long that there was no way the great man could live up to his expectations. But Stuart painted Washington numerous times and an engraving based on one portrait graces the dollar bill.

At the gallery, Joanna works painstakingly, gently dissolving yellowed varnish with cotton swabs, removing paint put on by previous restorers, “inpainting” with new pigment, repairing torn canvas.

It’s a science, an art — and a form of communion. “Oh, my gosh,” she finds herself thinking, “the Founding Fathers of our country were in the room with this painting when it was created. They touched this painting, then they had it hanging in their houses sometimes. It’s this amazing history. You feel lucky that we still have these things today to appreciate.”

Joanna looks at a portrait of Stephen Van Rensselaer III, a wealthy New York landowner and politician. “I feel he looks kind of mean,” she says. “I just envision him as this rich, snobby guy.”

Nearby is a portrait of Capt. Joseph Anthony, Stuart’s uncle and the man who paved the way for his apprenticeship with West. “I can imagine him being proud,” Joanna says. “He looks that way — this happy, proud guy. ‘You did good,’ I imagine him saying.”

The National Gallery owns 42 Stuart paintings, including the only surviving set of portraits depicting the first five U.S. presidents. See them on the Fourth of July.

Send a Kid to Camp

Camp Moss Hollow is a summer camp for at-risk kids from our area. You can help support it by going to washingtonpost.com/camp, clicking where it says “Give Now,” and designating “Send a Kid to Camp” in the gift information. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.

Want to treat the kids — and yourself? Go to any Clyde’s restaurant Wednesday and order the jumbo lump crab cakes. Proceeds from that item at Clyde’s, the Hamilton, the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Tombs benefit Moss Hollow.

Twitter: @johnkelly

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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