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[Detail] Illustration of the shield of Virginia, from the eighteenth century


Although its visuals are not The Capital and the Bay’s greatest strength, various documents do present portraits by the well-known artist Gilbert Stuart. Stuart, known as the "Father of American Portraiture," painted more than 1,000 portraits. His subjects included the first five American presidents, as well as many other prominent citizens. Stuart chose to emphasis the subject's face by eliminating busy details and using plain, dark-colored backgrounds. Most of his portraits did not show the full body, focusing on the head and torso.

That Stuart had a sense of humor can be seen in the portrait he painted of Mrs. Richard Cutts. In the background of the portrait is Stuart's own profile. Anne Hollingsworth Wharton explains this somewhat strange painting in the following excerpt from "Social Life in the Early Republic":

Gilbert Stuart was in Georgetown while Mr. Madison was Secretary of State, and at this time painted a portrait of Mrs. Madison and a companion picture of her husband. Among numerous other portraits executed by Stuart were those of Colonel and Mrs. John Tayloe of the Octagon, and of Mr. and Mrs. Richard D. Cutts. In the background of this latter portrait, for which Mrs. Cutts sat a short time before her marriage, is to be found an exaggerated outline of the artist's own features. The story runs, that while Anna Payne's portrait was being painted that lively young woman entered into an animated discussion with the artist as to which feature of the face is the most expressive. Mr. Stuart gave his verdict in favor of the nose, while Miss Payne contended for the superior claims of the eyes and mouth. Stuart, who greatly relished a joke, even at his own expense, presented to his sitter the next morning a canvas upon which his own profile, the long nose somewhat exaggerated, occupied the place of the usual drapery in the background, inquiring, with a triumphant smile, whether he had not proved to her satisfaction that the nose was the most expressive feature of the face. Although the laugh was against her, Miss Payne was so much pleased to have secured a profile of her old friend, that she insisted that the very odd background should remain a part of the portrait.

(Pages 143 and 144, "Social Life in the Early Republic")

Use the lists of illustrations from such collections as "Social Life in the Early Republic" and "The First Forty Years of Washington Society" to locate several portraits painted by Stuart. Look carefully at the portraits.

  • Who is the person in the portrait?
  • What features of the person's face are most expressive?
  • Do details in the picture give you any clues about the person's life, such as when he or she lived, whether he/she was wealthy or poor, and so on?
  • Does the portrait suggest a mood? For example, does the subject look happy? Sad? Thoughtful?
  • Do you find the portrait interesting? Why or why not?

Use the same lists of illustrations to locate several portraits by other artists of the same period and compare them with the works by Stuart. Which do you prefer? Why? Compare the works of these early American portraitists with that of more contemporary artists; portraits of all the Presidents and First Ladies that can be used for this analysis are available in the American Memory collection "Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present." Try to identify how styles in portraiture have changed. Develop a list of characteristics of a good portrait in 1800 and in 2000.