Can you name the artist whose work has been reproduced more often than that of all other artists in history combined? The chances are that the artist’s name, Gilbert Stuart, won’t leave you any the wiser, yet it is Stuart’s portrait of President George Washington that adorns every US one-dollar bill. Stuart (1755-1828) was the most renowned portraitist in early American history. He painted the first six presidents and his work was admired and sought after by high society.
Yet despite this acclaim, there were contemporary comments about the uneven quality of Stuart’s work. While some portraits are vivid and lifelike, combining observed reality and flattering idealisation, others seemed awkward and cold. People observed how inconsistent Stuart’s style could be, even within single pictures, which led to suspicions that a pupil or one of Stuart’s children was responsible for poorly painted areas that conflicted with Stuart’s known competence. Bitter disputes arose between art historians over attribution of paintings ascribed to Stuart, and works once deemed authentic were relegated to museum basements as fakes.
In Gilbert Stuart and the Impact of Manic Depression, Professor Dorinda Evans of Emory University advances the idea that first-hand evidence from Stuart’s lifetime indicates that the painter suffered from manic depression (also called bipolar disorder) and that this directly influenced his abilities and judgement. The sources she cites are numerous and persuasive. She states that Stuart had no assistants who worked on his paintings and that inconsistencies are not (on the whole) the result of later overpainting by others.
In society, Stuart was celebrated for his wit and good humour, sometimes aided by the intake of alcohol and snuff. Yet he seemed to go through periods of numbness and lethargy, turning away sitters and refusing to work even when he was in need of money. Stuart became notorious for refusing to finish portraits, even if he had been paid. He would start with panache, but soon lose interest, leaving subjects to wait (sometimes for years) to receive their pictures.
Apparently, Stuart had ambitions for grand projects, but lost heart quickly and changed tack. (Evans notes that lack of focus and a failure to commit wholeheartedly to projects are common traits among manic-depressives.) When confronted with criticism, Stuart would sometimes overreact and destroy paintings, rather than correct minor flaws. The artist was sometimes recklessly spendthrift: he would buy expensive unnecessary props for portraits and would be impulsively generous when he was able. Yet when presented with chances to capitalise on opportunities to earn money, he could be apathetic or quixotic.