Monday, December 3, 2012

The Man Who Painted the Man on the Dollar

"What a business is this of a portrait painter!
You bring him a potato and expect he will paint you a peach."
Gilbert Stuart (1755 ~ 1828)
    SO, just a few months after young Geo Washington survived a deadly dust-up in the French & Indian War, when many thousands of Portuguese were still recovering and mourning the deaths of as many as 90,000 of their countrymen in a huge, whacking earthquake in Lisbon on 1 November, it was on this day, 3 December in 1755, that Rhode Islander Gilbert Stuart was born.
Imagine sitting in your best clothes and holding very still as that man with those observant, beady eyes studies you and draws and paints exactly what they see. That's what Washington did, in his second and last term, his noble decision, another instance of making his mark on untrodden ground. It's said that the 63-year-old President was about as uncomfortable as we would be so 41-year-old Stuart got him talking about horses. [This LINK tells more about the painter and the president.] 
    Alas, "when I painted him," Gilbert wrote later on, "he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face."
Can you even IMAGINE these in your own personal mouth???
     Me, having weathered several harrowing visits to the dentist over the years, I'm thinking POOR BABY! 18th Century Dentistry = YIKES! The man managed to win his country's war for independence largely out of sheer, steadfast endurance and just-by-God-don't-LOSE strategy; he gets his weak, squawling infant of a nation through its initial, noble, lick-and-a-promise efforts at self-governance and all of this whilst suffering the worst, unrelenting toothaches and the most hellish, purgatorial dentures. Anyway, this is what Gilbert Stuart came up with:

And was Martha Washington happy with this portrait of her hubby? Don't think so.  And I don't know that I am either, but then again, there's no photography. It's part of the painter's job to show the world what in the heck people really look like. Washington was his century's most significant person and plenty of people living then knew it. They wanted pictures of him; certainly Gilbert Stuart kept his nest feathered for years, painting copies and good for him, no foolin'. Well I know the struggle of keeping a freelance operation afloat, but - maybe this is just me, old greeting card illustrator that I am -  wouldn't you think that Stuart could have carefully observed this man and his mouth and cut them both some slack? 
      Anyway, next time you happen to handle a single, a buck, a greenback, check out the tiny engraving of the portrait done by today's birthday dude and ponder him - and his remarkable client.

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