"I therefore rest satisfied, and thank God that my lot is to be an American farmer" –J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782).
[Gilbert Stuart], Catalogue of an Exhibition of Portraits Painted by the late Gilbert Stuart, Esq. , [Boston: Eastburn, 1828]. 8pp. First edition. Octavo. Contemporary paper dust wrappers. Minor old fold lines and faint creases. Manuscript title on front wrapper. Identity of subject number 147, Mrs. S. Smith, written in manuscript. Slight dust-soiling. Very faint dampstain to lower half of text block. Overall, very good and quite rare.
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) resided in Boston for twenty-three years, from 1805 until his death in 1828, far longer than any other city during his professional career. In Boston, Stuart filled a void left over thirty years before by the departure for England of John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), and his presence in the city provided Boston’s arts-minded citizens with a rare genius, one whose talents with the brush were equaled only by his loquaciousness and his generosity toward younger artists. The latter in particular made Boston, nearly ninety years before Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous aside, the Hub of the arts universe in America. Would-be portrait makers from throughout the country traveled to Stuart’s studio to glean what they could from close orbit. When Stuart died in 1828, the entire city bemoaned the loss of one its brightest lights, and a memorial exhibition was quickly arranged.
Even in death Stuart benefitted from excellent timing. Earlier in the 1820s, Stuart had enthusiastically supported the addition of a gallery to the Boston Athenaeum, “particularly when the gallery’s founders announced that they planned to purchase Stuart’s work as the basis of a permanent collection” (Marshall 203). When the gallery opened to great acclaim in 1827, the inclusion of a number of Stuart’s works proved a major draw. The exhibition enabled comparison of Stuart’s portraits to that of other great American artists, such as Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), and inspired discussion among Boston’s intellectual luminaries, including Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody (Marshall 204). After he died the following year, the memorial exhibition, organized largely by fellow Boston artist and new denizen of the city’s art scene, Washington Allston (1779-1843), cemented Stuart’s reputation as the great American portraitist (Barratt 292).
The exhibition itself was a monumental moment for American art. The list of names recorded in the present exhibition catalogue fall largely into two categories. The first, a parade of Brahmins and Boston’s elite, including John Doggett, whose retail shop, Doggett’s Repository of Arts, was the city’s primary exhibition space prior to 1827. It was Doggett who commissioned the portraits of the first five presidents of the United States–Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe–which also appeared in the exhibition. The second category is a muster roll of nation-builders, including, of course, the presidents, but also Martha Washington, Paul Revere, Henry Knox, Daniel Webster, Timothy Pickering, Oliver Hazard Perry, and more.
Stuart’s retrospective not only elevated the reputation of the arts in the United States, but gave the maturing generation of Americans born after the Revolution a visceral connection to the progenitors of the nation they inherited. Such an exhibition would have been rivaled only by the “gallery of worthies” on view at Peale’s Museum in Baltimore. As a cultural event, the Exhibition of Portraits Painted by the Late Gilbert Stuart, Esq., helped reinforce and legitimize the national identity, making this record of its components a building block of American art history.
According to Sabin, a second issue followed later in 1828. In the latter issue, the printed numbers run to 211, with numbers 212 to 216 appearing in manuscript. The latter issue does not include the colophon that appears at the end of the present first issue.
Megan Marshall, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
Carrie Rebora Barratt, “Stuart in Boston (1805-1828)” in Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, Gilbert Stuart, exhib. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005).