One of my favorite paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is Gilbert Stuart’s The Skater, a 1782 portrait of Scotsman William Grant. The unusual work pushed against the boundaries of Grand Manner portraiture, presenting the sitter not as an immobile businessman or politician surrounded with emblems of his family and success but in the course of physical activity, skating along the Serpentine River in Hyde Park.
Although moving, Grant doesn’t look particularly excited to be out for an afternoon skate. Arms crossed – which apparently is how folks skated in the eighteenth century, amazingly – his body moves in one direction while his stoic face stares out the other way. According to biographer Richard McLanathan, Stuart began painting Grant’s face with the intention of executing a more traditional portrait before switching to the on-ice idea.
The Skater received rave reviews at the 1782 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition and was the reputation-enhancer Stuart needed to strike out on his own, after nearly six years as a studio assistant in Benjamin West’s workshop.
Stuart owed his career to West, in terms of training, networking, and financial support. When Stuart arrived in London in 1775 to establish a career as a painter he was firmly set on avoiding West, the most successful American artist of the eighteenth century, who happened to be based in London. Things didn’t work out quite as how Stuart planned. In terms of artists working in the colonies he was one of the most talented, but his precocious ability was nothing in the growing artistic center of London, and his utter lack of connections doomed him before he could even begin.
When Stuart eventually caved in December 1776 and contacted West, he did so in one of the most pitiful documents I’ve ever come across in my research:
Pitty me Good Sir I’ve just arriv’d at the age of 21 an age when most young men have done something worthy of notice & find myself Ignorant without Business or Freinds, without the necessarys of life so far that for some time I have been reduced to one miserable meal a day & frequently not even that, destitute of the means of acquiring knowledge, my hopes from home Blasted & incapable of returning thither, pitching headlong into mistery I have this only hope I pray that it may not be too great, to live & learn without being a Burthen.
It’s easy to imagine the depths of despair which Stuart made legible in his letter, which seems as much a personal catharsis as an attempt to convince West to take him on. It was wholly unnecessary as well. West was glad to take on fellow Americans as students, without letters of introduction or any personal prior knowledge. Indeed, in later years Stuart would revise his story of meeting West, claiming that he showed up unannounced on West’s doorstop in the middle of a dinner party of expats, one of whom knew Stuart’s uncle. Stuart still comes off as impulsive in that retelling, but it’s understandable why he’d want to attempt to erase his pleading letter from history.
His revisionist history of his first interaction with West is just one of the ways Stuart attempted to downplay the influence of his mentor on his own career. Although West provided the young Stuart the necessary artistic training in order to compete with the skilled painters active in England, as well as with the access to a network of patrons, collectors, suppliers, and fellow artists necessary for success on a European stage, Stuart constantly attempted to distance himself from West in the public sphere.
The two artists held different goals for painting, and saw different purposes for art in society. West believed in history painting as a way to transmit morals and values to society at large. Stuart didn’t care about history painting, preferring portraiture. His goals – at least until he returned to America in the 1790s – were simply to make enough money and gain enough fame to exist comfortably in European high society.
Beyond working toward a different goal for art and in a different genre, Stuart simply resented West for the fact that Stuart needed to beg for his help. The younger artist was fond of mocking West to sitters and friends. Susan Rather recently wrote an article on “Contrary” Stuart’s outspoken persona, in which she highlights some of his lowlights in dealing with West: “He made fun of West’s technical flaws as a painter and his contrastingly impeccable appearance as a man,” calling him effeminate and mocking his sense of decorum.
One of the reasons I like The Skater so much is that as a hockey player and fan I rarely see my sport of choice reflected in art, let alone from the period I study (Henry Raeburn’s The Skating Minister is the primary other example). Which is why Grant’s awkward stance always stood out to me, and why I think the painting also functions as a jab at West.
Benjamin West didn’t keep a diary or maintain archives of his correspondence, but did essentially dictate the biography of West written by novelist John Galt, The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, published in two volumes in 1816 and 1820.
Galt’s biography, more of a hagiography or a memoir than anything else, is full of barely-believable anecdotes about West’s life: he taught himself how to draw at age four, learned how to mix pigments from Native Americans, plucked hairs from his cat’s tail to make a brush.
The incredulous story that stuck with me the most wasn’t about West’s art-making, rather his extracurriculars. According to Galt:
During winter, at Philadelphia, skating was one of the favourite amusements of the youth of that city, and many of them excelled in that elegant exercise. Mr. West, when a boy, had, along with his companions, acquired considerable facility in the art; and having become exceedingly fond of it, made himself, as he grew up into manhood, one of the most accomplished skaters in America.
Galt continues to describe how a Colonel William Howe (who would later become General Howe, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the Revolutionary War) met West through skating in Philadelphia in 1759, and four years letter recognized West by his skating when the artist took to the ice in Kensington Gardens. Howe introduced West to some other noblemen who spoke widely about his ability:
They spoke of his talents as a skater; and their praise, in all their usual haunts, had such an effect, that, in the course of a few days, prodigious crowds of the fashionable world, and of all descriptions of people, assembled to see the American skater. When it was afterwards known to the public that he was an artist, many of the spectators called at his rooms; and he, perhaps, received more encouragement as a portrait-painter on account of his accomplishment as a skater, than he could have hoped for by any ordinary means to obtain.
It’s easy to see where executing a portrait of an ice skater could be seen as commentary on West. I’ve no doubt that Stuart and Grant actually did go skating on the Serpentine, and even that it was a late consideration on Stuart’s part to memorialize that event in his portrait of Grant. Galt’s biography wasn’t published until 34 years after Stuart completed The Skater – did West tell the story of his skating prowess frequently? Considering the other major player in the story, Colonel Howe, was by then point leading the British forces in North America, it would come at no surprise that West would try to associate himself with a major figure in the news (and hint at a kinship with a stalwart of Britain, at a time where it would have been quite disadvantageous for the American painter to be seen as a rebel).
I wish I had a definitive answer as to whether or not Stuart was trying to use the unusual composition of The Skater to assert a new-found independence from West. That would certainly fit in with Stuart’s modus operandi and would make for a compelling story. What better way to establish oneself as a premier portraitist in London than to execute a masterpiece which not only outshines anything being produced by your master, but which references that master’s source of fame and reminds that West needed his skating ability to draw the attention of potential patrons, in turn a reminder that West’s artistic ability was not good enough on its own to allow him to succeed.