- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 895 x 698 mm
frame: 880 x 1080 x 110 mm
- Presented by J.H. Anderdon 1853
Gilbert Stuart 1755–1828
Oil paint on canvas
895 x 698 mm
Presented by J.H. Anderdon 1853
Inscribed ‘G Stuart’ bottom right
Probably given by the artist to Elizabeth West (1741–1814), wife of Benjamin West, London; reportedly taken back by the artist and sold to John Boydell, London, before 1787, before being returned to Elizabeth West; sold as from the collection of Benjamin West at Robins, London, 20 June 1829, lot 20 […] J.H. Anderdon (1790–1879), London; given by him to the National Gallery, London, in 1853; later deposited at the National Portrait Gallery, London; transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1919.
This portrait of the successful American-born history painter Benjamin West (1738–1820) by his pupil and fellow American, Gilbert Stuart, can be identified with the painting exhibited as a ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’ at the Royal Academy exhibition in London 1781. West is shown half-length, seated in a chair upholstered in a striped red fabric, wearing a pale green-grey suit lined in silver and a pale, yellow-green waistcoat, apparently of a metallic thread which catches the light, with a frilly jabot erupting from between the open buttons towards the throat. The sitter is shown resting heavily on his left elbow, which sits on the arm of the chair and seems to be tucked into his side. Accordingly, his torso is shown leaning at a marked angle forming a diagonal from bottom left to top right of the composition. West wears what appears to be a short, heavily powdered wig and ‘bag’ (his natural hairline was already receding considerably by the time of this portrait), and is shown looking to his right.1 The covered corner of a table is visible at the bottom right, and a red-brown curtain is shown draped in the right-hand portion of the background; the setting is otherwise left unspecified, although these details are enough to suggest a domestic interior. West holds, in his left hand, a rolled, apparently blank, sheet of paper.2
As indicated by the original, exhibited title of this work, West is represented as a gentleman rather than a professional, practising artist (which role might have been signalled by the presence of painting apparatus, sketches or a painting). The costume and short wig are indicative of fashionable gentility. The relatively dynamic positioning of the body, however, suggests some element of unconventionality, most regularly associated with portraits of intellectuals or creative artists where the distant, distracted gaze serves to suggest inspiration or higher thought. Moreover, Stuart’s most recent biographer has asserted that this is ‘one of Stuart’s more experimental pictures’, displaying a new interest in painterly effect ‘in the impasted dots on the jabot and the short, thick strips across West’s powdered hair’.3 The arrangement of the figure is close to that of William Abercromby (c.1773–8, National Trust for Scotland, Leith Hall Garden & Estate), a portrait sometimes attributed to West,4 though the dynamic pose and painterly animation are more also, and more fully, indebted to the example of Thomas Gainsborough, who had in the previous decade created and exhibited a number of comparable portraits of men from the field of the creative arts. The portrait of the actors David Garrick (exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, in 1770; National Portrait Gallery, London) and John Henderson (1773–5; National Portrait Gallery, London) and the composer Johann Christian Bach (1776; Civico Museo, Bologna) are among the most immediately relevant models for this picture. In a contemporary letter to the Bath portrait painter William Hoare, Gainsborough had emphasised how portraits require a ‘Variety of lively touches and suprizing Effects to make the Heart dance’, a description which may have some application in reference to the effects sought by Stuart in this painting.5
Having trained with the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander (1724–72) in his native Rhode Island and in Scotland, Stuart had arrived in London in 1775, and was taken by West into his studio (and home) as an assistant and pupil in 1777. He had exhibited portraits at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1777 and 1779 but without critical notice. At the latter exhibition he had shown a portrait of a boy in Van Dyck costume (Minneapolis Institute of Arts), a gesture intended to attract critical attention by adventurously forcing comparison with the most acclaimed portrait painter from history, and his more recent imitators of the acknowledged master of the art of portraiture (including artists such as Reynolds, Wright of Derby and Gainsborough). While the portraits exhibited in subsequent years have been described as ‘harder, dryer, more downright’ than the work shown in 1777, they can nonetheless be interpreted as similarly strategic efforts at engaging public interest.6 The exhibition of West’s portrait in 1781, together with a likeness of the famous but recently deceased botanist and physician, and patron of the painter, Dr John Fothergill (as ‘Portrait of a gentleman, done from recollection of him since his death’; Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia) was, then, a renewed attempt at gaining public attention as well as a means of paying tribute to two men who had lent him their personal support. In painting portraits of two of the most famous men of the day, and, arguably, in creating in the picture of West an image of eye-catching colouristic and painterly effects, Stuart must have been aiming at asserting a reputation as an emerging artistic talent. In this he was successful, and several critics drew attention to the pictures. The Public Advertiser in reporting on the ‘young Merit’ displayed in the exhibition, said that the two paintings ‘shew to our Observation something like a good painter hereafter’.7 The St James’s Chronicle identified the ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’ as ‘An excellent Portrait of Mr West’, adding ‘I do not know a better one in the room’.8 According to the early historian of American art, William Dunlap, who had met Stuart in London in 1784, the portrait of West shown at the Royal Academy (which, as discussed below, he refers to mistakenly as ‘a full–length of his friend and master’) ‘attracted great attention and elicited just admiration’.9
In pursuit of public notice, Stuart had entered a financial partnership with the prominent mezzotint engraver Valentine Green to issue a print of his portrait of Forthergill. This was published by Stuart and Green on the 1 June 1781.10 No engraving of the present portrait is known to have been issued, although Stuart was commissioned by John Boydell in 1782 or 1783 to create a larger and more elaborate portrait of West (now National Portrait Gallery, London) as part of a series of portraits of artists for shop’s gallery display (including the Tate’s portrait of William Woollett, N00217). This was engraved in stipple by Caroline Watson and published by John and Josiah Boydell in 1786. West reciprocated by sketching Gilbert Stuart at his easel in the act of creating either this later portrait or the present picture (British Museum, 1943–11–13–149).
The picture was presented to the National Gallery by the collector of art and manuscripts James Hughes Anderdon (1790–1879) in 1853. He refers to the gift in his notes on eighteenth–century exhibitions, where he reveals that he only saw Stuart’s signature in the corner of the painting on the day he handed the work over.11 A fine, rather spidery signature ‘G. Stuart’ is still visible in the right bottom corner of the picture, above (and parallel with) the table edge to the right of the sitter’s body. Stuart did not generally sign his paintings, something noted even in the very earliest accounts of his work.12
The earlier history of the painting is not fully documented. Dunlap, who was able to draw on personal testimonies, relates a story about the portrait of West exhibited in 1781 (which he refers to as a ‘full–length’, although there is no indication that he knew the painting at first hand) being presented to the sitter’s wife as a sign of his ‘great esteem and gratitude’, before being borrowed back, ‘Not long before leaving England' (in 1787) by the impecunious painter for alterations and surreptitiously sold to John Boydell: on discovering this, ‘West claimed his property, and Boydell lost his money’.13 A ‘Portrait of the late Benjamin West, PRA’ identified as by Stuart was sold as from West’s collection in auction in 1829.14 As the larger painting of West now in the National Portrait Gallery passed with Boydell’s print stock to the print–sellers Graves & Co, from whom it was purchased directly in 1872, the present painting is almost certainly that work. The purchaser is not, however, recorded, although Anderdon was active as a collector by that time.
The painting was on display among the National Gallery's British collections at Marlborough House in the 1850s, when an unofficial guidebook offered a critical commentary:
A pleasing genteel likeness of Mr West, in the prime of life; but it is not characteristic either of the Quaker or the President of an Academy. The carnations and the coloring throughout, are remarkably clear and delicate but faint, the light blue and white of the dress predominating too much, to allow of tone and strength! it would consequently appear to greater advantage in a private apartment than in a national collection.15
Before 1879 (as noted by Anderdon, who died in that year) the picture was moved to the display of British portraits at South Kensington (the nascent National Portrait Gallery) where it was shown in a group with Stuart's portraits of John Hall (National Portrait Gallery) and William Woollett (N00217).16 In George C. Mason’s pioneering checklist of Stuart’s works (1879) it was confused with his second portrait of West now at the National Portrait Gallery, London).17 It was transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1919. In 1926, while the painting was apparently still on show at the National Portrait Gallery, a literary review could refer to the painting as exemplary of the artist’s ‘direct business–like approach to the subject ... pre-eminently American traits ... but closely allied to the characteristics of English portraiture, which combine refinement with frankness and unselfconsciousness’.18
At least two copies of the portrait exist, one attributed to the American painter Mather Brown (1761–1831) in the Annmary Brown Memorial, Providence Rhode Island and another in the collection of Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania.19
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