What I Learned About Gilbert Stuart

One of the (many) treats of my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was the chance to see Gilbert Stuart’s “unfinished” portraits of George and Martha Washington. The president’s portrait is the one used for the dollar bill. It’s a very famous painting, which many people know already, but I hadn’t been to the MFA in over 20 years, so it was fresh for me. And the last time I saw it, I wasn’t a painter, so I could see if with fresh eyes this visit. And seeing the portraits in person is different than seeing them in reproduction.

Both paintings are unfinished, apparently because Martha Washington didn’t like them. Martha’s is the head only, the president’s portrait includes the head, the beginning of shoulders, and a start of a background in the upper 2/3 of the canvas. The heads are exquisite: lively, beautifully rendered, subtly detailed. One of the little signs at the MFA says that Stuart captured those subtle, lively colors in the skin tones by glazing very thin layers of paint. So the heads in these paintings are virtually complete.

And the rest of the canvas is blank. A halo of dark around Martha’s head, and the beginning of a background in the 2/3s of the piece around George, both painted in a burnt umber-ish color, and after that—blank. Stuart knew what he wanted to do. Martha’s face is off-center. But there are no sketch marks, no blocking in, no marks of any kind. Just what appear to be stains on one of the canvases.

Detail showing the blank canvas on Martha Washington's unfinished portrait.
Martha Washington (Martha Dandridge Custis), by Gilbert Stuart (detail). 1796. Oil on canvas. Jointly owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Wikipedia says this was Stuart’s frequent practice. I’m no expert (and certainly not of portraits)—but that blank canvas speaks volumes to me about the confidence Stuart had to complete these paintings: to eventually fill in the clothing, the backgrounds, to keep proportions and light-and-shadow consistent, to make the paintings seem like one complete whole and not like bits stuck together. I know some painters today who work that way, but I was taught to fill in the entire canvas, to bring all the areas of the canvas to completion together, so they will all hang together as a single painting.

There’s another benefit to working this way. Stuart could give his clients an idea what the finished portrait would look like without spending the time or paint on the completed work before the client decided they wanted to keep them. I have no idea if that’s what Stuart was actually doing—he was apparently rather impulsive—but still. Who knows?

If you’re an artist—how do you work a painting? Do you work the entire canvas as a whole, or do you finish the focal point first, then complete the rest?

 

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