Arts Everyday Living: Happy 4th of July! Art of the Presidency–Gilbert Stuart’s John Adams



Gilbert Stuart, John Adams, c. 1800/1815, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Robert Homans, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

John Adams (1735-1826), one of the founding fathers and second president of the United States, died on this date, July 4th, 1826, nearly two hundred years ago.* Currently, Washington, D.C. has no official memorials to Adams, but a number of his portraits can be found around the city: from the White House to the  National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery to the National Gallery of Art which owns not one but two depictions by American artist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828).

Best known for his iconic portraits of George Washington, Stuart also depicted the succeeding chief executives including Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, plus more than 1,000 of his contemporaries, often prominent figures. His subjects ranged from First Ladies Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison to first Chief Justice John Jay to government officials to wealthy businessmen.

Do you notice the similarities between the paintings of John Adams, yet the differences too? The earlier work was started while Adams was still in office, yet it took Stuart 15 years to finally finish it, much to the frustration of the then former president and his waiting family. While the second portrayal, done circa 1821, was based on the first version and became part of a series on the first five presidents.

Do you have a preference? Stuart is admired for his distinctive brushstroke rich colors, and masterful recreation of textures. For instance, are you drawn to the deep reddish tone of the jacket, that you can almost touch? What about the facial expression and overall demeanor of Adams in both portraits? How do they compare?

*Thomas Jefferson also died on July 4, 1826.

Gilbert Stuart, John Adams, c. 1821, oil on wood, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Until recently John Adams was the longest lived U.S. president, reaching the age of 90 on October 30, 1835. Stuart actually captured the elder Adams in 1826, the year of his death. To view this extraordinary representation, just google:

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of John Adams, 1826, oil on canvas, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.


In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.


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