Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828)
ca. 1794
North American
oil on canvas, framed as an oval
Overall: 30 1/2 in x 23 1/2 in; 77.47 cm x 59.69 cm
Henry Herbert Swinburne, of New York, New York; A. Rueff, of Brooklyn, New York, by 1926; Robert L. Clarkson, of New York, New York, by 1979; the donor, of New York, New York
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. Bayard Clarkson
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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Object Essay

This very strong head is a virtual demonstration of Stuart’s painting technique. Over a putty-colored primer, a layer of gray was applied, then a dark umber shadow tone, which underlies the splendid, high-toned face and supplies the wraparound dark shadow lending the head its strong relief. On that ground, Stuart modeled the head easily, with high flesh tones, ruddy coloring, and judiciously used highlights. Patches of umber seem to have been left uncovered in various places, such as the pupils of Van Rensselaer’s eyes, his right eyebrow, and along the right side of his face, contributing to the pictorial unity of the head. Quickly and economically, Stuart made this head spring to physical and intellectual life. 

At the time of the sitting, Stephen Van Rensselaer (1764–1839) was about to take the office of lieutenant-governor of New York.1The provenance remains problematic. The painting is identical with no. 867 in Park, 2:777, and 4:541 (ill.), although there is a slight discrepancy in the stated dimensions. No. 867 is a study of the head, as described in this text, for Park, no. 865, the large half-length figure that in 1919 passed from the Van Rensselaer family to the Thomas B. Clarke Collection in New York. A letter from M. Knoedler & Co., New York, to Robert L. Clarkson (May 20, 1936) makes it appear that the Department of State’s head also belonged to T. B. Clarke, although its prior provenance as given by Park is not that of the finished portrait (no. 865). A committed Federalist, he was the eighth patroon of this venerable family to have dominion over the vast estate near Albany. He later commanded the United States forces on the northern frontier in the War of 1812, and served in the House of Representatives from 1823 to 1829. Active in the commercial development of New York State, he promoted the construction of the Erie Canal and Champlain Canal and founded the Rensselaer Technical Institute (1826). He was “probably the foremost man in the state in point of wealth and social prominence, [and] was loved for his simple tastes, democratic behavior, and genial manners.”2DAB, s.v. “Stephen Van Rensselaer.”

William Kloss

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.