Wednesday 3 December 2014

The Skater

Gilbert Charles Stuart (nĂ© Stewart; Saunderstown, Rhode Island, America, 3rd December 1755 – Boston, Massachusetts, America, 9th July 1828)

Self Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1778
Self Portrait, 1778
Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Gilbert Stuart, one of the greatest portrait artists in American history. His work is part of the fabric of his homeland even today and features on the dollar bill, as well as a long and illustrious career on postage stamps thanks to his numerous paintings of Presidents!

The work that has caught my eye today is The Skater, a 1782 oil painting commissioned from Stuart in one year earlier. By this time he had been living in England for four years and serving as apprentice to apprentice to Benjamin West; during this time he attracted a great deal of attention for his portraits, exhibiting to some acclaim at the Royal Academy.

In 1781 Stuart was approached by William Grant, a Scot who had designs on becoming the subject of the artist's first full-length portrait. Although apprehensive of embarking on the project, Stuart accepted and it was duly agreed that Grant would sit for the artist in a traditional pose.

On the day of the sitting, both artist and subject remarked on the crisp coldness of the air and discovered that they shared an enthusiasm for ice skating. As is so often the case one thing led to another and soon the painting was abandoned in favour of a trip to Hyde Park to skate on the frozen Serpentine. Here the men drew admiring onlookers as they showed off their skating prowess, spending the afternoon enjoying the outdoors in an all-too familiar display of procrastination.

The Skater by Gilbert Stuart, 1782
The Skater by Gilbert Stuart, 1782
As the shadows lengthened and the ice grew hazardous, they finally returned to the studio and Stuart began the portrait. He found himself perfectly distracted by thoughts of the afternoon just passed and suggested to Grant that he might paint him as he had been just hours earlier, skating flamboyantly upon the Serpentine. Grant agreed with enthusiasm and Stuart set to work.

Set apart from the other, distant skaters, Grant cuts a fine and fashionable figure upon the ice. Although one can glimpse the city on the horizon it might be a hundred miles away or more for all its import to those enjoying the simple pleasure of skating. However, though he is not alone on the ice, Grant utterly dominates the scene. His dark clothes stand out against the pale background and he looks away from us and off of the canvas, at something we cannot see.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782 to great acclaim, attracting admiration for the unusual concept and the masterful execution. Stuart found his career catapulted into the stratosphere by the painting, the artist suddenly in high demand from the finest patrons. He was an apprentice no longer, and his life would never be the same.


Sarah said...

An inspired choice.... and a wonderful painting!

Nancy said...

No wonder the painting was received with acclaim. It has a frehness and vitality still apparent today.O, how I envy him his confidence on the ice. I learned to ice skate when I was eleven. The wonder of it. I wished and dreamed for my own ice skates for the next winter. We moved to Georgia and I was bitterly disappointed to discover that we had flowers at Christmas and ice skates were unheard of. The skater's poise and expertise are all the more remarkable when one considers the rather insecure means of fastening on the skates.

Marie Macpherson said...

Often wondered if he influenced the Scottish painter Henry Raeburn's iconic portrait of the Reverend Walker skating on Duddingston Loch: aka The Skating Minister:

Catherine Curzon said...

Just right for this time of year!

Catherine Curzon said...

I am a terrible skater, but it's such good fun!

Catherine Curzon said...

I can't help but think itmight be!

Mari Christian said...

What a handsome skater. The pose is remarkable: compact and full of energy.

Catherine Curzon said...

You can see the movement in it!