Tag Archives: MFA

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?

 

A Visit to the MFA

I recently had the chance to spend two afternoons at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (An admission is good for two visits within 10 days.) I was visiting Massachusetts for a cousin’s wedding, and decided to indulge. I know museums can foster a strange perception of art—that good art should be in museums, not in homes—but I love them. Whenever I travel somewhere, I seek out the local art museum to see what I can learn.

MFA Boston Main Entrance
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This is the main entrance along Huntington Avenue.

That visit—and thinking about this blog post—got me thinking about the role of museums in today’s culture. I’ll probably post more about that in the future. But for now, some first thoughts:

An art museum can show you want good art can look like*, and what to look for in art. Think of Sargent’s “masterful” brushstrokes—everyone call them that—or Monet’s use of color or the energy behind Joan Mitchell abstracts or Jackson Pollock drip paintings. Museums can be repositories of culture, from ancient Greek ceramics to Franz Bischoff’s paintings on porcelain vases. And they can educate you on the history of art or of a country. One of my biggest surprises at my visit came when I recognized the name of an American painter I’d first heard of only a week or two before—on Antiques Roadshow. After that, I started seeing other things by artists or companies I’d seen on the Roadshow: a giant ceramic jug made by a former slave named Dave; fine early American furniture, revolutionary period silver (this is Boston!). And then there was the Tiffany stained glass and East Asian Buddhas.

So, as a first impression, art museums can give you an idea of some of the things a culture values: the kind of artwork, furniture, jewelry, porcelain. They can teach you about taste and style and perceptions in other eras, other places, before photography or even lithography made it possible to reproduce images inexpensively. Gilbert Stuart, for example, is said to have made many portraits of George Washington from the one that was used for the dollar bill, the “unfinished” portrait.

And, for an artist, if you look closely, you can learn a bit about how other artists tackled the subject matter that challenges you. The advice to young writers is to “read everything.” I’d say the same for painters and sculptors and jewelers: look at everything. Learn what’s been done before, learn from the best.

And I can’t forget the goslings.

Goslings napping on a sidewalk in the Fenway. Photo by Stephanie Benedict
These goslings had decided to take a nap in the middle of the walkway in the Fenway. Photo by Stephanie Benedict

The second day I visited, I walked for a bit along the Fenway behind the museum, where I encountered this family of geese. They had decided to take a nap in the middle of the sidewalk. I’ve no idea why. They all woke up a few minutes later, but were still on the sidewalk when I left.

Do you visit art museums? What do you like or dislike about them?

(*) except they are vested in modernist art, too—more on that in a future post.