- Gilbert Stuart 1755–1828
- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 754 x 635 mm
- Bequeathed by the Hon. Clare Stuart Wortley 1945
Gilbert Stuart 1755–1828
Portrait of a Man (Self–portrait?)
Oil on canvas
754 x 635 mm
Bequeathed by the Hon. Clare Stuart Wortley 1945
… with Sir Claude Phillips (1846–1924), London by 1917; bequeathed by him to Alice Sophia Caroline, Lady Stuart of Wortley (d.1936), London; her daughter, the Honorable Clare Euphemia Stuart Wortley (1889–1945), Windsor; bequeathed by her to the National Gallery, London, in 1945; transferred to the Tate Gallery, 1955.
The strikingly-coloured portrait was identified as a self-portrait by the American artist Gilbert Stuart by the artist’s biographer Charles M. Mount in 1962 and has been accepted as such by the Tate since then. However, this identification has been challenged in more recent scholarship and the painting is no longer generally considered as an image of the artist. An alternative identification has not yet emerged.
The painting has traditionally been dated to the later years of Stuart’s first stay in London (1775–87) or to his first years of his subsequent period based in Dublin (1787–93). The painting exhibits the emphatic and distinctive colourism which became an important feature of Stuart’s portrait practice in the mid–1780s. Stuart, who was only just emerging as an independent artist over these years having worked in Benjamin West’s studio in 1777–82, created a succession of highly individualised male portraits on three-quarter length formats, with the sitters posed variously and costumed in often intense and unusual colours. The two other portraits by Stuart in Tate collection, of the painter Benjamin West (N00229) and the engraver William Wollett (N00217), are of this character, with the latter come from a series of portraits of contemporary artists produced for the London print publisher John Boydell. These follow the pattern of the informal, strongly characterised male portraiture developed by Reynolds and, most especially, Thomas Gainsborough, in the 1770s. In its treatment of the sitter and strong colouristic effects, conveyed through assertively visible brushwork, the present portrait could be related to the latter painter’s likenesses of Bach and Garrick (both National Portrait Gallery, London), and with its cross-armed pose most especially the portrait of the painter Philip Jacques de Loutherbourg (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London). The grey-green of the costume of this sitter compares to the slightly bluer, grey-green suit in Stuart’s portrait of West. As with the portrait of the American painter, this sitter wears a short, heavily powdered wig. But where West looks to one side, in a pose suggestive of intellectual distraction, the young man in this picture engages our eyes directly. In combination with the crossed arms, the effect may be taken as confrontational, and with the delicacy of the sitter’s features, even unsettling of gender norms. Such, at least, was suggested (presumably unwittingly) by an early twentieth-century commentator on the picture: ‘His delicate cheeks are those of a blushing girl. There is something of the fashionable beauty in his nervous caprice, his confident self-satisfaction, his cynical pleasure in the admiration of his fellows’.1
The picture was with the museum curator Sir Claude Phillips (1846–1924) by 1917, when it is first documented; it was bequeathed by him to Caroline Lady Stuart of Wortley (d.1936), daughter of Sir John Everett Millais and the second wife of Charles Beilby Stuart–Wortley, Baron Stuart of Wortley (1851–1926). It was then identified as ‘Portrait of a young man with powdered hair dressed in grey and white’ or ‘a young man in grey’.2 The painting was bequeathed to her daughter, the Honorable Clare Euphemia Stuart Wortley (1889–1945), an art historian, who in turn bequeathed it to the National Gallery, London. It was, however, swiftly deposited with the Tate Gallery and transferred officially in 1955.3
The work had been dated to c.1785–9 in Lawrence Park’s catalogue raisonne of 1926. The identification of the sitter as Stuart himself was asserted by the artist’s biographer Charles M. Mount in correspondence dating from 1962 and in his published book on the artist in 1964 where it was illustrated as such as the frontispiece (and referred to as ‘recently identified as a self–portrait’).4 Responding to an inquiry in 1973, Tate’s Assistant Keeper, Elizabeth Einberg, addressed this identification and noted that ‘there seems to be no reason to dispute this’; a subsquent, undated handwritten note by Einberg acknowledged ‘on second thoughts, there is’.5 Indeed, the identification as a self–portrait has been dismissed in the recent scholarly literature on Stuart. The crossed arms posture, and the absence of painter’s tools, canvas, and more importantly the perceived lack of resemblance between the subject of this picture and the only firmly accepted self–portraits (1778; Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport Rhode Island; and an oil sketch, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York) means that this identification may not be left unquestioned.6 However, it should also be noted that according to George C. Mason in 1879 ‘Mr Henry Graves, of London, has Stuart’s portrait, painted by himself in England’.7 As Graves, a prominent printseller, had inherited the Boydell print business, and the paintings from the series of artists’ portraits that John Boydell had commissioned from Stuart went to him (including N00217), there is some possibility that it was this painting, or an otherwise undocumented self–portrait by Stuart. Moreover, the long nose and small, rather pinched mouth of the sitter in the present portrait may arguably be more like the features Stuart gave to himself in the two acknowledged self–portraits than recent commentators have allowed.
Two further paintings in the Tate collection have been identified as portraits of Stuart. One was originally attributed to Gainsborough Dupont and identified as representing the dancer Vestris (N01271). This was re-identified by Mount as a portrait of Stuart based on the resemblance between the sitter and the man in the present purported self–portrait.8 This work has now been re-identified as a work by Thomas Gainsborough and the sitter’s identity re-established as Vestris.9 The other (N01480) showing a balding, round faced man in black, acquired in 1896 and first identified as a self-portrait is now attributed to Martin Archer Shee and has formerly been identified as a portrait of Stuart of c.1788.