Friday, April 26, 2013

German visitor and friend of Goethe Sophie von La Roche in London 1786, pays a visit to Stuart who now reigns at the top with Joshua Reynolds and West, in grand digs

Stuart left Newport RH in the fall of 1775—already the colonies were under threat of war, the harbor had become so dangerous that Stuart’s ship was held up for a week by a British man-of-war.  The goal was London.  Stuart surely knew that Benjamin West (born in PA) was already there. Out of funds quickly thereafter, he auditioned successfully as a church organist and lived in “cheap lodgings” (according to his daughter.)  The artist continued to be destitute, finally sometime  in the late winter of 1776 Stuart wrote to West to ask for help “to live and learn.”  Stuart’s talent began to unfold and success quickly followed. 

In 1782 Stuart achieved an explosion of prominence, and his reputation skyrocketed, with the display of his portrait The Skater in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of that year, allowing him to leave his apprenticeship with West.  He now felt that in order to better convey his success and prosperity, impressive expensive lodgings were in order (despite the cost).  He rented a grand house, as was usual with other successful portrait painters, which also provided the suitable surroundings for his more prominent sitters and for proper entertainment. It was here, on Sept 13 1786, that Sophie von La Roche [from Germany] visited Stuart. 

The Skater by Gilbert Stuart 1782

Sophie kept a diary of her trip to London, one day was designated to paying tribute to famed English artists. September 13, 1786: She begins her entry “An extraordinary day!” and continues “Pictures by Reynolds, Gainsborough, West and Stuart; then to Green, the engraver’s.  To my mind, in the homes of these men the English character glistens like the gold they employ for the encouragement and reward of diligence in art; the numerous orders and the artists’ prosperity are evidence of this.  Lovely homes, apartments hung with pictures by famous old masters, bronze and marble ornaments—these are one’s first impressions;

... “we found West, the painter of historical scenes, there in person, surrounded by pupils and masterpieces by his own hand.  He received us nobly, though unassumingly, in the manner of all great achievement.  He works in a room lit from above, and the gallery leading to it is hung with sketches of completed pictures of which engravings had been made....

[and here are the few comments made when she visits “Mr. Stuart.”  One could come away with the impression that Sophie did not care for the turn of the conversation towards the price of portraits]
...“From here we arrived at Mr. Stuart’s, a young, but respected artist, who will become an excellent portrait painter; he already has plenty to do, and deserves every encouragement.  He, too, lives as if in the hall of the temple of the Muses, in rooms of magnificent style, fit for true genius to unfold its wings and soar.  Fine architecture surrounds him; and it would be almost impossible for him to introduce anything niggardly or anxious into his pictures.  But in accordance with all this, 20, 50, 100 and 150 guineas are the sums quoted here when the talk turns to the prices of portraits.”

No other words referring to Stuart. Sophie visited the engraver Green, and then lunched with "Mr Heinzelmann" a relative.  A brief description of the rest of the afternoon: "We had an old English menu; a large fish, boiled mutton, pudding, boiled cabbage with butter, and a roast.  Punch was made at table.  After the meal Miss Heinzelmann played the piano and sang until I was fetched to see Somerset House, a magnificent palace built in four large wings dedicated to the academies of science and art."

Stuart did not last long in his grand digs.  1787 he went to Dublin at the invitation of a patron (who unexpectedly died), and decided to stay.  To avoid creditors in London?  In 1789 he was sent to debt prison where he irreverently continued to paint portraits for "bread."

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