Sunday, February 1, 2009

German Influence on Stuart

This full length portrait of William Grant, called The Skater, was submitted by Stuart to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1782 and created a sensation, drawing much attention to the hitherto relatively unknown painter and significantly boosting his reputation. Stuart had travelled to England in 1775 and while at first jobbing as an organist, he managed to apprentice with Benjamin West (famous on both sides of the Atlantic), and this was his first venture outside of those bounds.
Various influences have been attributed to the coloring and style of this painting, including of course that of West and also, of the English school, Joshua Reynolds.
Others have suggested more obscure theories for his unusual (for Stuart) choice of colors. Evans has ascribed Stuart's interest in a theory of music/color he developed himself as has having a possible influence; writing "Stuart arrived at his own plan for "associating" pure colors and musical chords. ....Stuart's spectrum, based like Newton's on the prism, differed in that Stuart used two values of red to make eight colors, while Newton had seven colors and eight divisions corresponding to notes....." (The Genius of Gilbert Stuart by Dorinda Evans, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1999) Whatever one wants to make of this particular line of thought, what must strongly strike the viewer of the Skater, is the German influence.
Within a few years of this painting, Wilhelm Tischbein would gain world-wide fame with his full length portrait of the German literary poet and philosopher Goethe. The two men not only, in these two portraits, wear somewhat similar clothing (in particular the wide brimmed hat slightly lifting up on one side), but also share similar facial features. A strong wide face, sharp nose and dimple in the chin, the hair almost exactly the same, both can be described as having a robust physique. Goethe was the literary sun of the time, his influence after publishing the work Die Leiden des junger Werthers in 1774 radiating all over the world. Goethe then chose to throw off his chosen profession of law, to settle in the small dukedom of Weimar. Here was a postage-sized cultural jewel, loacated in the deepest countryside, yet the fame of the circle of the Duke Ernst August and his Duchess Anna-Amelia already well-established by the time Goethe arrived in 1776. He was, in all senses, a true celebrity of the time.
Goethe was a lover of nature, of exercise, in addition to his literary pursuits. The freedom of a cold water swim, or a frozen surface inviting vigorous movement, these were both favorite elements of Sturm und Drang. It is well established how Goethe taught the court the pleasures of ice-skating in nature (while composing poetry!) Afterwards he organized skating parties, filling all those participants with his joyous sense of bon vie!
Back to The Skater. It is well known that Stuart loved to talked to his customers, in an effort to draw out the personality to help capture the essense of the sitter. Would it not be likely that Gilbert was struck by the physical resemblance of Grant to Goethe, perhaps helping to strike up a conversation about the new cultural super-star; it is more than plausible that both were fans of Goethe and his novel and poetry, of Goethe's ability to depict emotion in literature, of his love of nature... and in fact, of his passion for ice-skating outdoors...
And perhaps sitter and artist were discussing the commission on a such a cold, grey, wintery day!

'Eis-Lebens-Lied' (Life Song on the Ice) by Goethe 1776

Sorglos ueber die Flaeche weg!

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