Portrait of a Gentleman, 1793
Portrait of a Gentleman, 1793
Oil on canvas 29 ¼ by 24 ins; 74 x 61 cm; inscribed on reverse; held in original gilded wood frame
Provenance: James & Alice Murnaghan, 25 Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin; sold Mealys, in association with Christies, lot 461, The Murnaghan Collection 14th October 1999; Private Collection, Ireland until 2011
Born in North Kingston, Rhode Island, Gilbert Stuart grew up in the trading city of Newport, where itinerant Scottish portraitist Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772) gave him his earliest training in painting. After a brief visit to Scotland in 1771 he went to London in 1775 where he worked for five years (1777-1782) as assistant to the Anglo-American painter Benjamin West. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and established a successful London practice from 1782-1787, until he was virtually forced to leave to escape his creditors, the result of living too extravagantly and undertaking too many unrealised commissions.
Stuart arrived in Dublin in October 1787, apparently at the invitation of Charles Manners, 4th Duke of Rutland who had been a patron in London and who desired more portrait commissions. Sir Joshua Reynolds had executed a number of family portraits previously but declined to travel to Dublin, instead recommending Stuart for the task. However, Rutland, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, died suddenly on 24 October of the same year, a singular event that could have spelt disaster for Stuart and his new family. Fortunately, two of his main patrons from London, the Duke of Northumberland and the Earl of Shelburne had extensive estates and, importantly, great influence in Ireland. Furthermore, the city was undergoing a great period of artistic and architectural development which further ensured an advantageous climate of portrait patronage. He quickly asserted himself as the finest portrait painter outside London and was soon able to count among his sitters most of the elite members of Dublin society, including John Fitzgibbon, Lord Chancellor of Ireland; John Forster, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons; John Beresford, first Commissioner of the Revenue in Ireland and George Hamilton, Baron of the Exchequer. Despite this Stuart was unable to handle his finances properly and always remained deeply in debt. This resulted in even a brief spell in Marshalsea Prison in summer 1789. He remained in Ireland until 1793 when he left for America.
Upon returning home Stuart rose to become the most prominent portraitist in America during the Federal period. Five presidents as well as many other politicians and distinguished figures sat for the artist. He painted the president in the winter or early spring of 1795 and this success led immediately to many other commissions. As in Ireland his sitters were politically prominent and wealthy, from the merchant and landed classes. After Washington, D.C. became the new national capital, Stuart moved there in December of 1803, where he painted all his key patrons, many from Jefferson’s administration. In the summer of 1805 Stuart settled in Boston where he continued to paint politically and socially prominent sitters and, on request, to make replicas of his second “Athenaeum” portrait of George Washington. An indication of Stuart’s popularity is the number of portraits he painted, over a thousand during his long career. Today he is revered and his paintings hang in numerous American and European museums. And most famously his portrait of George Washington features on the dollar bill and is emblematic of America.
This portrait, painted at the very end of his time in Ireland, shows the individuality of approach that would lead to such success in America. Stuart utilized the loose, painterly treatment of contemporary English artists, first by blocking in the principal shapes across the canvas and then brushing in the opaque colors of the face, which he covered with transparent and semi-transparent hues. The final effect was one of freshness and spontaneity; the strokes applied quickly but surely, as is apparent in this fine portrait.
Bought by the great Irish-American collector James Murnaghan (1881-1973) possibly sometime after 1916 this portrait by Stuart was for many years in his collection at 25 Upper Fitzwilliam, Street in Dublin. In original, unlined, condition the canvas displays the duty stamp for 1793 which successfully dates the portrait to within the first few months of that year as Stuart left for America in March. In remarkably good condition the portrait is completely unrestored and held in the original frame. At the time of Alice Murnaghan’s death in 1999 the painting hung in the upper drawing room of the house that had become an extraordinary museum for almost an entire century.