Portrait of a Young Woman

Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828)

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The sitter's dress and coiffure reflect the new American aristocracy's desire to legitimize itself through association with historical styles of ancient Greece and Rome.

Stuart's portraits of George Washington and Federalist families in Philadelphia and Washington secured his place in history.

Portraitist of the American Aristocracy

Debt resulting from an inability to manage money kept Gilbert Stuart on the move much of his life. Born in North Kingston, Rhode Island, and raised in Newport, Stuart was taught by a local Scottish painter, who took him to Scotland. His mentor’s death forced Stuart to return to America. During the Revolutionary War, Stuart traveled to England to study with the American expatriate Benjamin West. As success came, so did debt, which forced Stuart to Dublin, Ireland, and then to America, where he eventually became the most highly regarded portraitist of his day. A skillful master of his craft, Stuart painted directly on the canvas without using any preliminary drawing. Stuart was prolific – he painted over one thousand portraits of important political figures. One of his most famous portraits of George Washington was the “Athenaeum Head,” which is currently on the dollar bill.

The conventional pose and accessories in Portrait of a Young Woman are characteristic of Stuart’s work; however, the sitter’s rare loveliness and the influence of French Neoclassicism are exceptional. The Empire style of the girl’s dress and coiffure reflect the taste of the American aristocracy, a class eager to legitimize itself through association with the historical past, specifically ancient Rome.

Barratt, Carrie Rebora, Ellen Gross Miles. Gilbert Stuart. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

Purchased from Max Safron of New York by William H. Ball in Muncie, Indiana; given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1977.

Object Information

Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828)
creation date
about 1802-1804
oil on canvas
29 x 24-1/4 in. (canvas)
35-3/4 x 31 x 3-1/2 in. (framed)
accession number
credit line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Ball
Public Domain
American Painting and Sculpture to 1945

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