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Face Value

National Gallery's Riveting Portrait Of Gilbert Stuart

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 26, 2005; Page C01

Pull out a dollar bill, face up. What's the picture in the middle?

If your instinct is to say "a portrait by Gilbert Stuart," you've got a doctorate in American art. Otherwise, you're bound to say "George Washington."

Sitting pretty? In his portraits of Washington, including a 1797 painting, below, and the unfinished "Athenaeum," above, a version of which graces the dollar bill, Gilbert Stuart refused to be swayed by the fame of his subject. (New York Public Library)

Therein lies a dilemma at the heart of every portrait painter's art. If your sitter is unusually prestigious and well known, your picture is most likely to be remembered for who sat for it -- not for who painted it, and how.

A fascinating touring show that opens tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art gives us the chance to watch that dilemma play out across the course of one artist's career. "Gilbert Stuart," organized by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, assembles 91 paintings into a thorough survey of the greatest portraitist to work in the early United States. In it, we see the artist dealing with his sitters' fame, and sometimes maybe pushing back against it.

Take Stuart's wildly successful portraits of Washington.

The most famous of them is known as the "Athenaeum Portrait," after a Boston institution that once owned it. It's by far the most widely copied image of Washington. Stuart himself riffed on it almost 100 times, and who knows how many hacks did cover versions of it. Yet it's not much of a work of art.

It gives Washington hardly any personality at all. The president was famously distant and reserved, but that doesn't mean that Stuart had to make him look like a stuffed shirt. For at least 700 years, portraits have been judged by the quantity of character they seem to show. And yet Stuart's most famous Washington comes off as Mr. Bland.

Of course, you could also judge a portrait by how good it manages to make its sitter look. Which once again leaves Stuart's picture out of the running.

Poor George happened to have been caught wearing a lousy set of dentures on the days in 1796 that Stuart painted him. (There's a sad little letter from Washington to his dentist, begging him to fix his favorite false teeth quickly because his spare ones -- the "Athenaeum" set -- "are both uneasy in the mouth and bulge my lips out in such a manner as to make them appear considerably swelled.") And yet Stuart seems to have made no effort to make up for the president's dental challenges. In fact, he seems to have accentuated them.

In the "Athenaeum" canvas painted directly from life, which Stuart kept in his studio as a model for almost all the later portraits, Washington looks a bit chipmunkish, but not freakishly so. But in Stuart's many derivations from it -- the pictures that went into public circulation -- our poor first president looks as if he's just had his wisdom teeth pulled.

When art historians write about these pictures, they mention Washington's ill-fitting teeth as though that explains away the issue of the swollen jawline in the portrait. But we're not talking photography here: Stuart could have chosen to paint that jaw any way he wanted. In fact, there's an image he painted just a few months earlier, known as the "Vaughan" portrait -- after a version of it now in the National Gallery -- that actually had the president looking pretty fine. Yet that's not the one that Stuart chose to send out for posterity. I can't help feeling that Stuart's portraits of Washington betray a kind of artistic anxiety, even resentment, at the task of portraying the most famous man in the United States. Stuart knew his own art would always play second fiddle to Washington's fame, so he didn't bother investing too much of himself in these portraits.

He knew that viewers would scan a portrait of the famous president for signs of his grand mind and spirit, and so long as the picture was basically competent, they'd always convince themselves they'd found what they were looking for. Dozens of texts in praise of all kinds of Washington portraits -- good, bad and indifferent -- show them doing precisely that. Gilbert Stuart's art, however great, could never hope to out-shout George Washington's big name.

In a letter written in 1793, when Stuart was planning to return to the United States after 18 successful years in London and Dublin, he said, "I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits." Even before he had set brush to canvas, that is -- before he'd ever even seen the man he hoped to paint -- Stuart knew that whatever picture he ended up making would be guaranteed financial success. It turned out that he could even present an unflatteringly accurate portrayal of the Great Man on a bad-face day, and make a mint off it.

By making Washington uglier than he had to, and refusing to lavish his most impressive talents on him, Stuart was in a sense asserting his resistance to the pull of his sitter's fame. This may have been a singularly passive-aggressive power play, but it could still leave Stuart feeling liked he'd won the game.

Compare that to what happens when Stuart paints someone without the celebrity of Washington.

His 1782 picture of the unknown London lawyer William Grant, now in the National Gallery's collection, is one of my very favorite paintings. It also sparked enthusiasm almost as soon as it was unveiled at the Royal Academy's prestigious annual exhibition in London.

Stuart had settled in England only seven years before, as a self-trained and barely skilled 20-year-old Rhode Islander, the son of Scottish immigrants to the United States. But within that time, he'd picked up all the tricks of the best of British painters -- of superstar portraitists such as Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney and Joshua Reynolds. And then, in his portrait of Grant, he outdid them. He came up with the original conceit of showing the lawyer as a fashion-conscious athlete, busy pulling fancy figure-skating moves on a frozen pond in London's Hyde Park.

Earlier artists had sometimes shown their sitters in the guise of outdoorsmen. (Physical fitness was a growing fad in 18th-century Europe.) Those sitters, however, mostly looked like they were costumed for a workout but not engaged in one. Stuart presented Grant as though he had actually been caught, snapshot-style, in a sporty leisure moment.

Grant got one of the most dynamic portraits anyone could ask for, painted with a ravishing bravura. And yet the huge canvas must have been almost entirely a fiction constructed in Stuart's mind and carefully executed in his studio. Grant, it seems, could barely skate, and portraitists didn't paint outdoors in Stuart's day.

The portrait shows off the reality of Stuart's artistic skill rather than any truth about the sitter who happened to benefit from it. When Grant visited the picture at the exhibition, crowds pointed him out as the subject of Stuart's flashy picture -- which was known simply as "A Gentleman Skating" -- rather than pointing out the portrait as an image of Grant.

Throughout his career, Stuart almost always seems to have given the most of himself to his least important sitters. Of the 15 pictures in the current exhibition that strike me as truly stunning, hardly one shows a prominent achiever at the height of his powers. The really great portraits are of other artists, of poets and eccentrics, even of his era's dispossessed -- old people, women and an Indian chief.

When Stuart does portraits of a married couple, it's often the wife who gets the more interesting, lively treatment.

Soon after returning to the United States, Stuart made a perfectly accomplished, worthy portrait of Richard Yates, a leading New York merchant and former British loyalist. And he painted a portrait of Mrs. Richard Yates that is a truly exciting work of art.

Cocooned in impressively crisp satin, Catherine Yates is shown sewing, and looking every bit as sharp as her needle and as tightly wound as her thread. Her character is impossible to read precisely -- that's one reason the picture is so potent and appealing -- but Stuart makes sure there's plenty of it on show in his picture.

Who knows what Catherine Yates's inner life was really all about? The idea that a good portrait "reveals a sitter's soul" must be one of the oldest, most persistent and most specious cliches in all of criticism. All a portrait can do is give a feeling of soulfulness, correct or otherwise, constructed by the artist who painted it.

Stuart's picture of his dear friend and fellow painter John Trumbull is another wonderful portrait of someone without the very highest social standing. And it's another example of how much personality Stuart could inject into a picture when he wanted. Trumbull seems to have thought that it was especially good art, even if it didn't at all capture the kind of man he really was. The portrait, for all its lively touch and elegant color scheme, made him out to be too "pert" and "methodistical," he later said.

Almost all Stuart's pictures of powerful politicians, including his portraits of the first five U.S. presidents, are pretty dull compared with Stuart in top form.

When John Adams was powerful, he got a relatively staid image out of Stuart. But when Stuart was asked to portray him later, as a frail and almost helpless 88-year-old, the painter pulled out all the stops. The stupendous picture, which closes the show, presents a great man fading into history. He's swallowed in a deep sofa, as though his body has shrunk as much as his capacities. Eyes that cliches say should once have been as sharp as an eagle's are now rheumy and remote. Adams, the president, had a rank to challenge anything that Stuart's art could do with him. Adams, the fading old man, was a perfect foil for the artist's skills.

Gilbert Stuart was famous, and infamous, for his absurd artistic willfulness and pride. Early on, when the Archbishop of Dublin demanded changes to his portrait, Stuart responded that "a dressmaker may alter a dress; a milliner a cap; a tailor a coat, but a painter may give up his art, if he attempts to alter to please."

Later, when Jerome Napoleon, the emperor's brother, made a suggestion concerning some drapery in Stuart's dazzling picture of Jerome's beautiful American bride, the artist flew into a rage and refused to finish it. Stuart told his famous patron to go to a draper if he wanted cloth.

After all, when this painter put his heart into a work, it wasn't to supply a viewer's needs. It was about purveying art, on his own terms.

Gilbert Stuart is on display through July 31 in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, on the Mall at Seventh Street NW. Call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

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