Stuart, Gilbert Charles (1755–1828), portrait painter, was born 3 December 1755 at North Kingstown near Newport, Rhode Island, North America, son of Gilbert Stuart, snuff miller, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Albro Anthony of Newport. Stuart is celebrated in the USA particularly for his portraits of George Washington, but also for portraits of Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, painted after his return to America from Ireland in 1793. His paternal grandfather was a presbyterian clergyman in Perth, Scotland. His father had emigrated to America in 1751 and built a snuff mill at North Kingstown. The business failed, and the family moved to property in Newport inherited by his mother and kept a shop selling snuff. Gilbert was the youngest of three children and after instruction at home was sent to an anglican grammar school connected with Holy Trinity church, Newport. He also showed early talent in music and played flute and keyboard.
The young Stuart was taught to paint portraits by an African slave. In 1769, at the age of 13 or 14, he became a pupil of the Scottish portrait painter Cosmo Alexander, with whom he travelled around America during 1770–71 and finally to Edinburgh, where Alexander died on 25 August. Stuart returned to America during 1773 after spending about a year in Glasgow, when he may have attended the university there. No portraits survive from the Glasgow period, but some do from the period after his return to America. Stuart decided to go to London to pursue his talent and left America on 8 September 1775. Having struggled for a year painting portraits for low fees, he found employment for a guinea (£1.05) a week in the studio of successful fellow American Benjamin West, RA, painting draperies and finishing portraits. West also gave him studio space and instruction. Stuart exhibited a fine portrait of West at the Royal Academy in 1781 together with a portrait of Dr John Fothergill, botanist, philanthropist, and physician, which was engraved by Valentine Green. He left West's studio in 1782 following the success of ‘The skater’ (National Gallery of Art, Washington), exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. From 1777 to 1785 he exhibited portraits at the Royal Academy. He established a clientele that comprised mainly members of the upper middle class and some members of the aristocracy, including the dukes of Manchester and Northumberland. He began to live in high style at 3 New Burlington St., entertaining lavishly with a household including a French cook.
He first appeared in Dublin in autumn 1787, fleeing debts acquired in London and with an invitation to paint the portrait of the lord lieutenant, the duke of Rutland (qv), who unfortunately died before the portrait could be executed. Over the next few years he made several return visits to London. He had good introductions to the highest level of Irish society and his work became immediately in demand. He was somewhat self-important, being overly aware of his abilities, and being of unstable character he eventually took to drink. Among his first Irish sitters was Henry Grattan (qv) (engraving by C. H. Hodges of now lost portrait; NGI). His work centred around the parliament, painting many MPs, including the Hon. John Beresford (qv), Henry Grattan (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, and NGI) and Sir Jonah Barrington (qv) (Art Association of Indianapolis, Herron Museum of Art). However, the irregular parliamentary sittings and his extravagant habits meant that he was frequently in debt. He painted a magnificent full-length portrait of John FitzGibbon (qv), earl of Clare, in his robes as lord chancellor (Cleveland Museum of Art). He also painted a full–length (1791) of the Rt Hon. John Foster (qv), speaker of the house of commons, with the interior of the house of commons in the background and the speaker's mace on a table (Nelson Gallery, Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri); a half-length of the leading Irish peer, the 2nd duke of Leinster (qv) (Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey); and portraits of many peers and bishops, including William Beresford (qv), bishop of Ossory. His portraits of Grattan and Foster were engraved by C. H. Hodges. An extensive list of Irish sitters is given by Strickland.
He moved into a property comprising a house and eight acres, owned by Lord Carysfort, in Stillorgan, Co. Dublin, apparently to avoid debts. He kept a studio in Dublin city and, as in London, entertained lavishly. The shortness of the parliamentary session of 1792 presented him with grave financial problems; with England closed to him, his only option was to return to America, which he did in 1793. He left behind him many unfinished portraits (most of which were finished by others), having collected the half-payments for the portraits which he used to fund his journey. On his return to America he lived in New York, Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia and obtained great success in his several portraits of George Washington. The Athenaeum portrait is jointly owned by the Museum of Fine Art in Boston and the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Nevertheless he experienced financial problems once more. In 1802 he sent two unnamed portraits to be exhibited in the Dublin parliament house. Stuart died in Boston on 10 July 1828.
He married (10 May 1783) Charlotte Coates, daughter of Dr Coates of Berkshire, England; they had fourteen children, one of whom, Charles, became his assistant. His daughter Jane also became a painter. At his best he was an exceptionally good portrait painter, both in his rendering of likeness and in the individual distinctiveness of his style.