Considered by his contemporaries to be the “father of American portraiture, ” Gilbert Stuart first trained under the Scottish-born painter Cosmo Alexander, with whom he travelled around America from 1769 and to Scotland in 1771.
He returned to Britain in 1775 and settled in London, where he worked as Benjamin West’s assistant for five years. In 1777 he began to exhibit his works at the Royal Academy and the success he enjoyed enabled him to establish himself independently in 1782. The year he married, 1786, he and his wife went to live in Ireland. During the five years he remained in Dublin he worked as a portraitist, painting the Protestant minority.
Stuart returned to the United States in 1793 with the intention of painting the new nation’s first president, George Washington, as the best means of earning a reputation as a portraitist. For this purpose he settled in Philadelphia, then the capital, and achieved his aim in 1795. This first portrait was followed by many others, both of the president and his family and of other prominent people.When the capital was moved to Washington, Stuart also went to live in the city in 1803 to remain close to his clientele. However, barely two years later he decided to travel to Boston, where he lived until his death. Stuart’s art evolved from the linear style of the early years to looser brushwork under the influence of painters like Benjamin West, Joshua Reynolds and George Rommey. The portraits he painted after his years of training in Britain, which made him the portraitist of the Revolution, were widely copied and many young painters, among them his sons and Charles Willson Peale, were attracted and influenced by them.