Speaking to posterity

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art have jointly mounted a magnificent exhibit of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits. Click here for the Met exhibit site, and here for the NGA exhibit site. The exhibit is open at the National Gallery of Art through the end of the month.
I visited the exhibit today and found it profoundly moving. Seeing Stuart’s development as an artist allows us to see his iconic portrats of Washington, Jefferson and Adams through new eyes. The exhibit includes many items that provide a perspective on Stuart that is entirely new to me, such as his triple image of Elizabeth Bonaparte that has an almost cinematic quality. Best of all, perhaps, the exhibit reunites Stuart’s magnificent portraits of the First Ladies with their presidential counterparts.
I had not heard of the exhibit before arriving in Washington yesterday. I can only say that if you have the chance to visit the exhibit before it closes, you will be grateful that you did. The only news account of the exhibit that I have found is this one by CBS earlier this month: “The Founding Father’s Portraitist.” In the event that you can’t make it to the exhibit, the Met (with Yale University Press) published what appears to me to be an exemplary catalogue to document the exhibit: Gilbert Stuart.
I learned today that Stuart’s contemporary, Washington Allston, praised Stuart’s portrait of the 90-year-old John Adams in terms that apply generally to Stuart’s work: “In this venerable ruin will the unbending Patriot and the gifted Artist speak to posterity of the first glorious century of our Republic.”


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