- Gilbert Stuart and the Impact of Manic Depression by Dorinda Evans
Dorinda Evans is one of a small number of art historians (including this reviewer) who have recently written about Gilbert Stuart and his memorable portraits of the political and social leaders of the early years of the American Republic. Employing her expertise in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and British art, she has considered his work in differing contexts for more than forty years. In her book-length study, The Genius of Gilbert Stuart (1999), she demonstrated in detail his approach to portraiture, and also documented his interactions with his contemporaries, including patrons and other artists. In the last chapter of this book she first proposed that he suffered throughout his life from manic depression, or bipolarity. In this new book, she has marshaled evidence for her theory, which seeks to understand the unevenness of his work, including portraits left unfinished and compositions awkwardly realized, contrasted with exceptionally successful characterizations. This unevenness has resulted in major disagreements among art historians about the reliable visual characteristics of his technique on which to base attributions.
Evans carefully bases her discussion on paintings that she has seen, in order to avoid problematic works. She concentrates particularly on eight paintings about which she had discussions with conservators and for which she could consult x-rays, some reproduced here. These close examinations [End Page 571] are presented within a broader study that draws heavily on a wide range of documentation. No one knows Stuart’s work better or has been as thorough in locating the many references to him, including comments found in unpublished letters and diaries as well as in contemporary newspaper articles or books. Evans’s description of his awareness of his condition conveys a view of the artist that leads the reader to admire and sympathize with him. The book is an outstanding accomplishment, focused and purposeful, carefully researched, and with telling use of the written sources. Evans bases her analysis of Stuart’s behavior and the varied manner of his paintings on known characteristics of bipolarity, frequently citing important medical sources on the condition and its effects: all with the stated goal of better understanding the paintings themselves.
Her argument begins with “The Case for Bipolarity,” a chapter largely based on descriptions by contemporaries that successfully brings Stuart to life. It shows him to be irregular in his habits, “cyclical” (painting in the morning only, or in the spring and not the winter), and given to excuses about uncompleted paintings. When discussing his bipolarity, for example, she notes that he adopted “a few crutches,” including the use of life masks of a sitter’s face “so that he could work on the picture at any time” (18). She notes that contemporaries saw his work as uneven, unfinished, and cold in coloring. She wonders why he delayed in arranging sittings with George Washington, “with perhaps some self-doubt … waiting for the right mood swing” (19). She quotes many contemporary observations about his swings in mood, including two that appeared in William Dunlap’s early biography, published in 1834, only six years after his death. Stuart’s lifelong friend Benjamin Waterhouse described Stuart as never having an “evenness of spirits” because “with Stuart it was either high tide or low tide,” and Dunlap wrote that “Stuart’s passions and appetites were of a kind said to be uncontrollable” (9, 17).
In the second chapter, “Marked Pictures,” Evans concentrates on individual paintings. She writes about his lifelong challenge with group portraits and full lengths, inconsistencies and awkward proportions in completing pictures, delays in arranging sittings, choice of colors ranging from pale or monochromatic to bright, and inconsistent advice to students about painting flesh. Among the paintings that she relates to his bipolarity are a very early work, Mrs. Christian Banister and Son, which she discusses using an x-ray detail; the painting of George Washington known as the “Vaughan” [End Page 572] portrait, long thought to be the first life portrait, again discussed with reference to an x-ray; three...