Gilbert Charles Stewart, known today as simply Gilbert Stuart, was born in a small village named Saunderstown, a historic district which was one of the original Thirteen Colonies; Colony of Rhode Island, in British America. He was the third child of Elizabeth Anthony Stewart and Gilbert Stewart, born on December of 1755. His father, who had Scottish blood, worked in the tobacco industry and built the first snuff mill in America, while his mother’s family were wealthy landowners from Middletown. Around the age of six, Stuart moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where he began to show his talents as a painter. He started learning about painting with Cosmo Alexander, a portrait painter when he was about fourteen. During this period, Stuart painter his early masterpiece entitled Dr. Hunter’s Spaniels. The artist moved to Scotland with his teacher a year later, in 1771, but sadly Alexander passed away in August 1772 while in Edinburgh. Without his mentor, Stuart went through difficult times trying to insert himself in the art market, forcing him back to Newport after a year.
In 1775, Stuart fled his country because of the social disruptions and difficulties of the American Revolution, and like the painter John Singleton Copley, left for England. Although he had some setbacks in the beginning, Stuart was already showing his paintings at the prestigious Royal Academy exhibit in 1777. During this time, he was a pupil of Benjamin West and continued studying under the grandiose painter for six years. In 1782, Stuart painted a portrait of the entrepreneur William Grant entitled The Skater, a painting which attributed him great fame. Along with Charlotte Coates, whom Stuart married in 1786, the artist had a total of twelve children - many of them passed away at an early age. Their first daughter, Jane Stuart, followed in her father’s footsteps and became a painter as well. After Stuart’s death, she assumed the families financial responsibilities and became known as the first woman portrait painter in Newport, making herself into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2011.
During the high point of Stuart’s career, his paintings became quite valuable - even more than the top British painters of the time, like Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. But because of his poor money management skills, he became in debt and fled to Dublin in 1787, where he was able to accumulate the same amount of debt as before. By 1793, the painter returned to the USA, staying first in New York City and by 1795 he moved to Philadelphia. Stuart opened his own studio in Germantown, where he would portray many great Americans in his artworks - including his best-known work, a portrait of George Washington which was put on the US one dollar bill. The original version of this painting was never completed, but, along with his daughter, he achieved many versions of the same portrait, about 130 in total.
Stuart continued changing locations and kept struggling with his finances, despite his outstanding reputation in the art market. He opened an art studio in Washington D. C., only to move to Boston two years later. During this period, Stuart was looked up upon by other artists like Washington Allston, Thomas Sully, John Trumbull, among others in search of advice. In 1824, the painter suffered a stroke which affected his movements, but he continued painting. Stuart passed away at the age of 72 in Boston, four years after his stroke. He left a significant amount of debt for his family, leaving them no choice but to bury his body in an unmarked grave. Stuart’s legacy for American portraiture will never be forgotten, as he portrayed over a thousand people, not to mention the first six Presidents of the United States of America.