Home Rhode Island The Gilbert Stuart Birthplace: A House Museum With a Different Spin

The Gilbert Stuart Birthplace: A House Museum With a Different Spin

Art and nature, all in one

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The early American painter Gilbert Stuart had many faults. He lived well beyond his means, was hopelessly unreliable and had a lifelong addiction to snuff.

Perhaps he can be forgiven for the snuff addiction. After all, he was born in a snuff mill in Saunderstown, Rhode Island.

Stuart’s father, Gilbert Stewart, built the snuff mill, one of the first in America, after immigrating from Scotland. He ran the family business in the basement of their home.

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Gilbert Stuart Birthplace, an artist home and snuff mill.

Today, the restored Gilbert Stuart Birthplace & Museum will take you back to colonial life in 1760. It will also take you back to snuff-making and corn grinding, as the museum has two mills on the property.

Gilbert Stuart

He was born in Saunderstown on Dec. 3, 1755 and baptized in the Old Narragansett Church. His mother, Elizabeth Anthony Stewart, belonged to a prominent Middletown, R.I., family that owned huge tracts of land.

When Gilbert was six, the family moved to Newport, R.I., where his father ran a shop that advertised “Continues to Make and Sell, Superfine Flour of Mustard.”

Detail from Gilbert Stuart self portrait, Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, R.I.

He showed an early talent for drawing, and a visiting Scottish painter, Cosmo Alexander, tutored him. At 14 he painted Dr. Hunter’s Spaniels, a copy of which hangs at the birthplace. At 16 he moved to Scotland with Alexander to pursue his studies, but Alexander died and Stuart couldn’t make a living. So he returned to Newport as a crew member on a collier headed for Nova Scotia.

He and his family sided with the Loyalists during the American Revolution. So in 1775 his father fled to Nova Scotia and he moved to England.  There, Benjamin West took him into his home as his apprentice.

Success

Stuart went on to paint more than 1,000 portraits. He first established himself in London, where he adopted the style of an English gentleman. His paintings commanded some of the highest prices in England. Remarkably, he painted without sketching his subject first. His philosophy was to load his pictures with color, but keep the colors separate. “No blending, tis destruction to clear & bea[u]tiful effect,” he told his pupils.

He was impetuous, moody and a brilliant conversationalist. Even the irascible John Adams enjoyed sitting for him.

In 1786, at 30, he married an exceedingly pretty 17-year-old, Charlotte Coates. They would eventually have 12 children, but seven died while still young.

They lived well beyond their means, and he and Charlotte had to move to Dublin to avoid debtors’ prison.

Stuart returned to the United States in 1793, hoping to paint a portrait of George Washington. He figured it would establish his reputation in the new republic.

He was right.

Gilbert Stuart, Back in the USA

Gilbert Stuart painted two portraits of Washington from one sitting in Philadelphia.

The first, known as the Lansdowne portrait, was a full-length portrait intended for William Petty, Lord Lansdowne. Stuart concentrated on Washington’s face and finished the rest of it later.

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George Washington,
Landsdowne Portrait, Brooklyn Museum of Art

He made several copies of the painting, one of which hangs in the East Room of the White House. That was the painting of Washington that First Lady Dolley Madison rescued when British soldiers advanced on the capital during the War of 1812. Other accounts have the doorman and the gardener removing the portrait.

The second painting, perhaps the most famous in America, was intended for Mount Vernon, along with a companion portrait of Martha Washington. Stuart asked if he could hang on to the unfinished painting so he could make copies of it. Then, he said, he’d deliver them both to Mount Vernon.

The Hundred Dollar Bill Painting

They never got it.

Stuart called it his hundred-dollar bill painting. Every time he needed money, he’d dash off a copy of the painting and sell it to a ready buyer.

The Athenaeum, by Gilbert Stuart

The painting has been copied millions of times, most notably as an engraving on the one dollar bill and on a number of versions of postage stamps. John Swords, a ship captain in the China trade, took a copy of it to Canton, where Chinese artists made at least a hundred copies on glass. Stuart sued him and in 1802 a judge ordered Swords to cease and desist.

Once Stuart painted Washington, he had no shortage of commissions. He painted the next five U.S. presidents, Horatio Gates, Aaron Burr, John Jacob Astor, King George III, John Jay and John Singleton Copley.

Abigail Adams wasn’t sure she’d ever get the portrait Stuart painted of her. It took him 15 years to finish, and by the time it arrived she remarked that it looked no more like her than anyone else.

The Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum

The museum includes period furniture and artifacts as they would have been used in each room. None of the artifacts are original to the house, but the handbuilt foundation and the enormous ballast brick fireplace in the kitchen certainly are.

Five Things You’ll Remember from The Gilbert Stuart Birthplace

Original Paintings

While the original Washington portraits do not hang from the walls of the Stuart birthplace, some original works do. And there are copies of the Washington portraits. The museum also recently added an art gallery with changing exhibits.

Beautful Grounds

Rhode Islanders call the museum a hidden gem because it’s on a country road a mile-and-a-half from the highway. Which makes it a pleasant place to visit on a nice day. In addition to the house and the mills, the birthplace encompasses a pond, a stream with a fish ladder, a colonial herb garden and hiking trails. You can picnic on the well-kept grounds or rent a boat and row on the pond. Or pack a lunch; the museum grounds have picnic tables.

The Snuff Mill

Not many houses have a kitchen that shares space with a water wheel. But right off the basement kitchen is the wooden water wheel and all the gears that moved the stone that crushed tobacco into snuff.

Fish Ladder

In the spring, the herring run between Carr Pond and the Narragansett Bay. Try to time your visit to watch the silvery fish surge up the mill stream to spawn in the freshwater pond.

Colonial Artifacts

The furniture includes the classic colonial multi-use table-that-turns-into-a-bench. There’s a spinning wheel and a loom, old rope beds and pewter dishes.

If you visit…

You can’t go on a self-guided tour, but tours are on the hour and led by a knowledgeable docent.  There is a gift shop.

It’s an old building with very uneven floors, not accessible for wheelchairs . Parking is easy, though, in the lot across from the museum.

The Gilbert Stuart Birthplace is open from mid-April thru September.

Plan to eat in historic Wickford nearby. The village has one of the largest collections of 18th century dwellings  anywhere in the Northeast. Most still stand on their original foundations. The Wickford Art Association sponsors a huge art festival every July.

Website: https://gilbertstuartmuseum.org/

Images: Gilbert Stuart birthplace (featured image) By Mlanni98 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77139356.

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