Tuesday, January 12


No, not that Stuart!

I'm actually talking about Gilbert Stuart, the most famous portrait artist in American history. He painted anyone who was anybody around the time of America's founding, including US Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. In fact, you probably see his Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington every day.

$1.00 Bill
George Washington's Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

In his lifetime, he completed over 1000 of portraits of politicians, socialites and powerful figures in American business and industry. People like Sally Foster Otis, who was married to the City of Boston's 3rd mayor, well-known federalist lawyer Harrison Gray Otis.

Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis by Gilbert Stuart C. 1809
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Winston-Salem, NC

Doesn't she look like she stepped out of a Jane Austen's Emma? Her hair, dress and jewelry show that she was a bit of an avante-garde woman. The hellenic style empire waist dress and gold arm cuff indicate that she was clearly aware of the transition from Georgian to Regency style happening across the pond. (Let me throw some credit the artist's way on this-- Stuart studied painting in Britain and would have been well aware of emerging English fashions. It is possible that he dressed Mrs. Otis for her sitting.)

But other than her clothes, this painting is pretty ordinary. You are probably starting wondering why I'm even writing about it. Why not focus on Stuart's portrait of first lady Martha Washington or Daniel Webster? They are definitely more notable historical figures that's for sure.

Well, look closer:

I have seen this painting twice in person and the first time I didn't notice it at all. Do you see it? Look again:

Yes, that's a child's face!

I know, it is really kind of creepy. I keep expecting the kid to emerge out of a puff of smoke and yell boo! If had this hanging over my mantle it would totally freak me out every time I walked by it.

This portrait actually started out as a painting of a mother and child. However, for some reason that abruptly changed mid sitting and Stuart painted over the little boy's face. When the painting hung in the Otis' home, the little face would not have been visible. But age and layers of settling paint have allowed a little boy to peek out of the canvas.

Isn't it amazing the secrets paintings slowly reveal over time!


  1. Nice post!
    The fashion style was made popular by the Emperor Napoleon's Josephine! She inspired the transition from the flounces of Marie Antoinette to the "Empire waist", and many of the ladies wore these dresses in the most shimmery, transparent material....Even the gold armband would be a la Josephine. Ms Otis was at the HEIGHT OF FASHION !

  2. Thank you for your comment Miss Einbildugskraft! You are so right about Josephine-- she really was the ultimate trendsetter at the time and she pioneered that pretty yet provocative bust line!

    I think the lady in your portrait is beautiful and your personal connection to Stuart is so interesting. Thank you so much for sharing!