Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hump Day Artist: Gilbert Stuart

The Athenaeum Portrait, Gilbert Stuart, 1796,
This week, I decided to focus on one painting instead of an artist's entire body of work.  This week's Hump Day Artist is Gilbert Stuart and I wanted to talk about this particular painting, The Athenaeum Portrait from 1796.  I'm sure you are all very familiar with this painting.  Grab your wallet and pull out a one dollar bill and there it is.  But you may not be as familiar with the version that you see here.  This is the most reproduced and recognizable image of our first President, however it is often cropped down to only include the face, leaving out the unfinished background.  A little backstory: Martha Washington commissioned Gilbert Stuart to paint a pair of portraits, one of herself and one of George.  Once Stuart had finished painting their faces, he decided to stall on completing the commission.  He realized he could make more money by keeping these paintings than by selling them.  Getting the President of the United States to sit for a portrait was no easy task, so Stuart could use this painting as a guide for future portraits.  Stuart kept both paintings in his studio, unfinished, and Martha never got her commission (
The unfinished portraits, Gilbert Stuart, 1796,
The first time I saw The Athenaeum Portrait in its entirety was about one year ago in a History of American Art class.  I was viewing slide after slide of Gilbert Stuart's work, most of which I find incredibly boring, when this painting came up on the projector and shook me out of my stupor.  I was stunned by how beautiful this unfinished painting was and was shocked that I had never seen it in its entirety.  This portrait quickly became one of my all-time favorite paintings and has inspired my current work and, I believe, the work of many modern painters, including Larry Rivers, Albert Oehlen, and the more current Provisional Painters.  

Larry Rivers, a Pop Artist, is an obvious choice when looking at The Athaeneum Portrait's influence and legacy.  Take his painting The Greatest Homosexual for example.  Though this painting is an obvious take on Jacque-Louis David's Napolean in his Study, it's unfinished nature points to Gilbert Stuart's portrait.  He sketches and re-sketches the figure, moving it all over the canvas but never erasing the original sketches.  We are left with a visual documentation of the artist's thinking process.  Rivers also makes use of what I'll call "the void": the blank canvas left behind that pulls the painting together while also working to break it apart.  This painting is not alone: many of River's paintings include a historical figure roughly painted on a white ground, a clear nod to Stuart's portrait of George Washington.
The Greatest Homosexual, Larry Rivers, 1964,
The Athenaeum Portrait's influence can also be seen in the work of Albert Oehlen, particularly in his more current pieces.  Objects in Oehlen's canvases seem to spring out of no where; there is nothing tying them down, nothing holding them to the surface.  These painted objects are surrounded and intersected by blank canvas.  When viewed in a gallery setting, this "void" becomes even more prominent.  Oehlen's early work, on the other hand, was incredibly busy, erratic, and every inch of the canvas was covered.  His work was connected to the German Junge Wilde movement, which translates to Wild Youth.  These artists were a backlash against the Conceptual and Minimal Art that was so prominent at the time.  As Oehlen's work has progressed, the busy-ness has moved to one or two areas of the painting, giving those areas even more presence.  The style is the same, but the composition is different.  Like The Atheneum Portrait, the contrast between heavily painted areas and bare areas is startling.
Albert Oehlen at Gagosian Gallery, 2012,
The more current group of artists that would seem to be influenced by Gilbert Stuart's painting are the so-called "Provisional Painters." A loose group of artists, their work is almost laughingly bare, unfinished, and quickly painted.  Sometimes, these paintings have little more than one color and a few strokes of paint on them (see Michael Krebber's work below).  Also, these artists often display their work in a kind of replication of the studio space in which they were made.  Josh Smith, for example, often displays his paintings in stacks against the wall, with stools all around them, and drawings and prints all over the floor.  Like Stuart, these artists are reluctant to let their work leave the studio.  While Stuart's reluctance was out of practicality, the Provisional Painters' reluctance is highlighting the process of making the paintings.  For these artists, the actual making of the work is the most important thing.  Painting itself is the subject of their paintings.
Micheal Krebber at Maureen Paley, London, 2013
Josh Smith, Schmerzhoehle, 2005,
The Atheneum Portrait may be one of the most famous portraits of all time.  Therefore, its influence is large and can only be touched upon here.  Though left unfinished, the painting is incredibly graceful and poignant.  Gilbert Stuart's acts of necessity have left us with a painting 200 years ahead of its time.  I have no doubt that this painting will continue to influence myself and other contemporary painters for years to come.

For more information on these artists visit:

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