On Desperate Seas: A Biography of Gilbert Stuart

On Desperate Seas: A Biography of Gilbert Stuart

On Desperate Seas: A Biography of Gilbert Stuart

On Desperate Seas: A Biography of Gilbert Stuart

Synopsis

This is Flexner's portrait of Gilbert Stuart, painter of George Washington, and other founding fathers, who once shied away from a self-portrait he had begun to please his bride. Flexner presents us with a portrait constructed as the artist would have constructed it, frank, without flattery, profound, and soul-stirring. A man once regarded as the probable successor of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Stuart was born in poverty in Rhode Island. He became through his art the intimate of the great of two continents. Yet, he never abandoned his disdain for worldly rank, or his fascination with character. He made huge sums in England but spent even more in dissipation. Prison yawned for him, and he fled his creditors. During his thirty-five American years, he painted with brilliance, creating a unique portrait manner. His rank as an artist was never questioned, but his nerves would not quiet. He drank, fought with his wife, and tortured his children. Stuart died as he lived: famous and bankrupt.

Excerpt

Like a true believer entering a shrine, John Neal tiptoed reverently into Gilbert Stuart's Boston studio. The more art is banished from the main current of national life by utilitarian pursuits, the more holy it seems to its votaries. In the roaring 1820s when the energies of the nation were absorbed in the growing settlements beyond the mountains, Neal, who aspired to be a painter, thought of Gilbert Stuart as a god. Was not Stuart recognized as the greatest artist in America? Had he not preserved the features of Washington for all future ages? Humbly Neal advanced toward the end of his pilgrimage.

He passed the threshold with eyes modestly downcast, but when he looked up, the worship in his expression gave way to surprise. He saw before him a furious-looking old man whose disheveled clothes were encrusted with snuff and one of whose feet was bound up because of gout. A huge mouth curved powerfully downward among the sagging muscles of his lower face; bloodshot eyes stared with unpleasant intensity from behind red lids. This terrifying countenance was dominated by a tremendous nose whose purple-red veins proclaimed its owner a perpetual drinker. When Neal asked incredulously if this was . . .

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