He left us the features of those who have achieved immortality for themselves.
–William Dunlap on Gilbert Stuart, 1834 (as quoted in Gilbert Stuart, New York, 2004, p. 130).
Masterfully rendered by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), this portrait hails the exalted status of George Washington as the pride of a young nation. A triumphant general and a unanimously elected first President, Washington was a beacon of national unity and optimism whose likeness was coveted throughout the country and beyond. Of the numerous depictions of Washington, none are more celebrated than those by Stuart based on sittings from life in 1795-1796 and their widespread popularity signals the burgeoning cultural vitality and economic growth in early America. In particular, the portrait offered here was painted for Bostonian Benjamin Joy (1757-1829) and its commission speaks to the sophistication, ambitions and patriotism of Boston’s post-Revolutionary elite. It is also among the rarer of Stuart’s works and represents the first sitting in 1795. Known as the “Vaughan” type after one of the first owners, only fourteen examples are known today, the vast majority in public institutions. In contrast, Stuart executed in the vicinity of seventy-five replicas of his best-known portrait, known as the “Athenaeum” type. Surviving in outstanding condition, this work well illustrates the virtuosity of Stuart’s signature brushwork and is a testament to the artist’s unrivalled ability to capture the essence of his subjects.
Stuart went to Philadelphia in 1794 intent on painting the President and his Vaughan-type portraits, based on a sitting the following year, illustrate his initial endeavor. The original painted from life was long thought to be that purchased by John Vaughan and now in the National Gallery of Art, but as argued by Dr. Ellen Miles, the Vaughan-owned example was likely an early replica as when later referring to the original, Stuart wrote that he had “rubbed it out.” Miles’ study, the most recent scholarly examination of Stuart’s Washington portraits, records fourteen known Vaughan-type likenesses, all of which were executed or at least begun in 1795 before Stuart embarked on his “Athenaeum” and “Lansdowne” versions. Based on details in the works, the manner in which they were executed and their provenance history, Miles places them in three sub-groups with proposed chronological sequence. The portrait offered here, along with the Gibbs-Channing-Avery example at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 1) and another in a private collection all bear distinguishing details, such as the presence of a jagged hair ribbon and thickly rendered curls, indicating that they were completed around the same time, most likely after the other known examples. Most of the Vaughan-type portraits have a single trailing hair ribbon while the fuller version seen here resembles those in some of Stuart’s Athenaeum-type portraits, suggesting that it was a device used by Stuart after his earliest Vaughan-type examples had been completed. Furthermore, both the Gibbs-Channing-Avery portrait and that offered here have provenances in Boston, where Stuart lived from 1805 until his death in 1828. Miles raises the possibility that the artist began these works in 1795 and ten years later took them to Boston where they were completed (Barratt and Miles, pp. 134-135, 141, 144, 146, 151).
This portrait was first owned by Benjamin Joy, a shipping merchant, the first US Consul to Calcutta and an ambitious land developer who was a central figure in the extensive re-building of Boston’s Beacon Hill in the 1790s and early 1800s (fig. 3). With the support of Thomas Jefferson, Joy was appointed by Washington to the consular post in 1792 and on his return journey to America, brought a shipment of wine for the President. Joy arrived back in 1795, the year Stuart began his Vaughan-type portraits, and if the portrait was completed before Stuart’s removal to Boston, it is possible that he purchased it in Philadelphia in 1795 or soon after. As a recent political appointee and by 1798 a Philadelphia landowner, Joy would have had reason to travel to the city.
In Boston, Benjamin Joy was closely allied to those who comprised Stuart’s most significant patrons and his inner circle of friends. In 1805, Jonathan Mason (1756-1831), a US Senator from Massachusetts, persuaded Stuart to move to Boston by promising to use “his influence with his connexions and the public at large as sitters” (cited in Barratt and Miles, p. 287). Mason and Joy were among a small group of investors, the Mount Vernon Proprietors, formed in 1794 and one of America’s first real estate syndicates. In the late 1790s, the group purchased a large tract of land on Beacon Hill from the artist John Singleton Copley and with architect Charles Bulfinch as one of their members, began building elegant mansions filled with fine furnishings and, in most instances, the works of Gilbert Stuart (Jeffrey Eugene Klee, “Building Order on Beacon Hill, 1790-1850,” (University of Delaware: PhD Dissertation, Spring 2016), pp. 68-75; Frank W. Bayley, The Life and Works of John Singleton Copley (Boston, 1915), pp. 12-15). Joy’s home, a circa 1800 townhouse which still stands at 29a Chestnut Street (fig. 2), was built by Bulfinch and may have been the site of a dinner party attended by Isaac P. Davis (1771-1855), a ropemaker and a “devoted” friend of Stuart’s (Harold Kirker, The Architecture of Charles Bulfinch (Cambridge, 1969), pp. 147-148; “Isaac P. Davis,” Biographies of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, vol. II (Boston, 1881), pp. 327-334; Barratt and Miles, p. 287). Lucia Gray (Swett) Alexander, the wife of the artist Francis Alexander who handled the portrait’s sale out of the Joy family, recalled in 1879:
When the picture was in the possession of the elder Mr. Joy [Benjamin Joy] it was struck by lightening [sic] while hanging on the wall, it passed round the frame scorching that, without injuring the picture… Mr. Joy [John Benjamin Joy, son of Benjamin Joy] referred to Mr. Isaac P. Davis as knowing all about the picture and this event, which I have an impression happened while he was at a dinner party at Mr. Joy’s... (L. G. Alexander to Mrs. Horace Gray, circa 1879. Wethersfield Foundation files).
The portrait was inherited by Joy’s son, John Benjamin Joy (1814-1864) and was subsequently part of two prominent Boston collections for the remainder of the nineteenth century. As detailed in the portrait’s 1908 handwritten label, it was purchased from the Joy family in about 1850 by Francis Calley Gray (1790-1856), a politician, reformer, philanthropist and art collector whose pioneering print collection remains intact as the Gray Collection of Etchings at Harvard University (Marjorie B. Cohn, Francis Calley Gray and Art Collecting for America (Boston, 1986), pp. 1, 8, 9, 202-238). In 1879, F. Gordon Dexter (1824-1937) purchased the portrait from Gray’s nephew. A shipping merchant and railroad magnate, Dexter married secondly Susan Greene Amory (1840-1924), the great granddaughter of John Singleton Copley, and the couple acquired several Copley masterpieces now in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Orrando Perry Dexter, Dexter Genealogy, 1604-1904 (New York, 1904), pp. 197-198).