Bordentown and the Portrait Maker

The high caliber impact that Gilbert Stuart left on the world of early American art is huge. His name resonates through the halls of well-maintained galleries where oiled portraits of our Founding Fathers and other prominent citizens suspend majestically above polished floors as if the wires were gossamer wings. The expressions on the faces of his subjects are so realistic, that they are often considered by critics as nothing short of astounding. And yet despite his natural ability to achieve skills as one of the best sought-after painters in the late 1700s and early 1800s, his character was flawed by his sanctimonious manner, bouts of severe depression, and a lackadaisical approach to his work ethnic which at times annoyed those willing to sit through uncomfortable durations for a portrait. If his subject complained, they were escorted to his studio door.

A native of Rhode Island, Stuart’s convictions gravitated towards being a Loyalist. As the American Revolution broke out, the young artist felt it was necessary to remove himself from the “distraction” and sailed to England to master his techniques. Under the guidance of Benjamin West, an American artist living in London, and other professionals in their craft, Stuart gradually reached the accolades that he thought that he richly deserved. In 1786, he married Charlotte Coates. Eventually their growing family would consist of twelve children.

For an artist of great talent, he commanded high prices for his work. This was offset by his reckless demeanor to always be on the verge of bankruptcy. A year after his marriage, he and his wife escaped to Ireland in order to avoid prosecution from being thrown into a debtors’ prison. Despite the threat, they flaunted their cavalier behavior in a luxurious home that included servants and a French cook. However, this lifestyle did not last as a desire grew within Stuart to paint a portrait of America’s first President, George Washington. By 1793, it was time to leave.

Returning to this country for the first time in almost two decades, Stuart moved to New York City and then to Philadelphia two years later as the city served as the capital of the federal government. Here he made arrangements with the sixty-three-year- old President to sit for several of his portraits in his Germantown studio. While the executed images on canvas conveyed the essence of Washington, his lack of spontaneity with the artist soured the sessions. Drained by the experience, Stuart lost the motivation to finish his work. Instead, he used the original version as a template to paint 130 copies of Washington’s celebrated image for individuals willing to pay the asking price of $100. One of those buyers was Edward Penington, a Philadelphian who founded the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was an acquaintance of Stuart.

When the federal government decided to move its location along the banks of the Potomac River in 1800, Stuart felt that the best way to pursue portrait commissions of prominent people was to relocate his studio as well. His undivided attention to his work meant that he would have to be separated from his family for a while. Since they could not afford to stay in Philadelphia, there’s the probability that Edward Penington made the suggestion for them to move to Bordentown. This seems feasible as it was the home of his brother, Isaac, and his family.

For a period of 18 months, beginning in 1803, Charlotte Stuart and her children lived on a modest farm about a mile from town while her husband completed 40 portraits, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and members of Congress. This situation caused great hardship as Charlotte anguished over the fact that money wasn’t being sent to the post office in order for her to buy food. In spite of their spendthrift nature, the Stuarts placed the blame for the missing money on a friend that sat for one of Stuart’s creations. His name was Edward Stow. Regardless of the surrounding circumstances, the family was eventually reunited.

Although researchers have been unable to pinpoint the exact location of the farm where Charlotte Stuart and her children stayed in Bordentown, there’s speculation that it was a 230-acre farm owned by Azariah Hunt since Charlotte mentions in a letter that she gave her mail to a “Mr. Hunt.”  Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that Azariah Hunt would later marry to Colonel Joseph Borden’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, in 1806.

Before the Stuarts left Bordentown for a new life in Boston with a cache of paintings, it is said that the artist, humbled by his gratitude, decided to paint a portrait of Edward Penington’s young niece, Ann. Seated in a gilded armchair, she    wore a black velvet gown while holding a miniature silhouette broach. In the background was open window that captured a view of the Delaware River. The portrait was unique for Stuart in that it is the only extant work known to have been painted by him in New Jersey as well as one of the few creations that bears his signature and location. With an undeniable style that was widely recognizable, there wasn’t a need to sign portraits. Stuart’s artwork spoke for itself.

The following year in 1806, Ann Penington died of tuberculosis and was buried next to her father in Bordentown’s Christ Church Cemetery. Her young brother and mother also rest next to her. Her portrait was bequeathed to her half-sister, Catherine, who lived in Philadelphia. Through her descendants, the portrait is preserved and currently on display in the city’s Powell House Museum.

The George Washington portrait that Edward Penington owned was later purchased by Mrs. Cicero Harris of Washington, D.C., who sold it to the government for placement in the U. S. Capital in 1886. Known as the “Penington Portrait,” the painting today hangs in the chamber of the U. S. Senate.

The original George Washington portrait that Stuart never finished, referred to as the “Athenaeum Portrait,” was the basis for the image on our one dollar bill and is on display in the Boston Athenaeum.  Therefore it is quite ironic that when Gilbert Stuart died in 1828, he left his family deeply in debt, subjecting them to bury him in an unmarked grave.

So the next time that you look at a one dollar bill, think about its unusual connection to Bordentown.