John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare, was the most important political figure of his day in Ireland. The son of a successful Irish barrister who had converted to protestantism in order to practice the law, Fitzgibbon rejected his own Roman Catholic origins and identified himself almost entirely with the protestant interest in Ireland throughout his career.
Following a distinguished academic career at Trinity College, Dublin, and then at Christ Church, Oxford, he was called to the Irish Bar in 1772, where he practised with considerable financial success. He was appointed Attorney-General in 1783, and in this office his identification with the Protestant interest made itself consistently apparent leading Lord Westmoreland to write of him that 'He hath no god but English government'. In 1789 he succeeded Lord Lifford as Lord Chancellor of Ireland with the title of Baron Fitzgibbon of Lower Connello. He was uncompromising in his resistance to popular movements and to all attempts to improve the position of Roman Catholics and the Act of Union was largely engineered by him. His views and his sometimes vitriolic and arrogant character made him unpopular with his opponents as well as with many on his own side. In 1793 he received the title of Viscount Fitzgibbon and in 1795 that of Earl of Clare. He was later created a Peer of Great Britain in 1799, as Lord Fitzgibbbon of Sidbury. He married Anne, eldest daughter of R. Whaley, of Whaley Abbey, Co. Wicklow, in 1786, and on his death he was succeeded by his son, John. At his funeral the curses of the Dublin mob reflected the hatred which a great part of his fellow countrymen felt for him but he was nevertheless reputed to have been a good landlord and true to his friends.
This portrait is a reduced version of the celebrated whole-length of 1789, which Lord Fitzgibbon commissioned from Stuart soon after the artist's arrival in Dublin in 1787 (now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, for which see Richard McLanathan, Gilbert Stuart, New York, 1986, illustrated p.62). Fitzgibbon's portrait was Stuart's first major commission in Ireland and its success not only sealed his reputation as a portraitist of great genius but gave him a virtual monopoly on portraiture in Dublin. Stuart was to paint many of the most important figures in Ireland in the following decade before debts once again obliged him to move on in 1792, this time back to America. More than one version of the Cleveland picture is know to exist which is not surprising as Fitzgibbon was, by the time of the portrait, the most important political figure in Ireland. A full-length version is in the collection of Trinity College, Dublin, where Fitzgibbon was vice-Chancellor, and at least one other version of this reduced format is known. Charles Merrill Mount records a version of similar dimensions in the collection of Mr and Mrs Wallace (C.M. Mount, Gilbert Stuart, New York, 1964, p.159). Gilbert Stuart is known to have had a number of assistants while in Ireland and it is not unlikely they assisted him in the production of such official portraits as this. While the drapery in this portrait may be the work of assistants the sitter's face and wig are, in the opinion of The Knight of Glin and others, by Stuart. Professor Dorinda Evans has expressed reservations on the basis of a transparency. After completing the Cleveland portrait Stuart invited the leading English engraver, Charles Hodges, to Ireland to engrave it in mezzotint, a measure of the success of the portrait and the anticipated demand for the image. It has been suggested that this reduced version may have originally been produced for the engraver to work from.