The John Quincy Adams Portrait by Gilbert Stuart & Thomas Sully

John Quincy Adams portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1825, and Thomas Sully, 1829-30, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828

John Quincy Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1825, and Thomas Sully, 1829-30, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828

In researching John Quincy Adams for Napoleon in America, I came across a portrait in which Adams’ head was painted by Gilbert Stuart and his body by Thomas Sully. The story of how that painting came about is an interesting one, involving two of America’s great artists, the perseverance of Adams’ cousin Ward Nicholas Boylston, and the intervention of Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, the first doctor to test the smallpox vaccine in the United States. It also tells us something about John Quincy Adams’ dress sense.

Spendthrift Gilbert Stuart

Gilbert Stuart, one of America’s foremost portrait painters, was born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island on December 3, 1755. In 1775 he moved to England, where he studied art under Benjamin West. Though Stuart exhibited at the Royal Academy and commanded high prices for his paintings, he spent beyond his means. In 1787, he fled to Ireland to escape his creditors. In 1793, he returned to the United States, leaving a pile of debts behind him.

Stuart became famous for his portraits of George Washington, one of which appears on the American one dollar bill. In 1818, when Stuart was living in Boston, he painted a bust-length portrait of John Quincy Adams, who was then US Secretary of State. Adams noted in his diary on September 19 of that year:

I sat to [Stuart] before and after breakfast, and found his conversation, as it had been at every sitting, very entertaining. His own figure is highly picturesque, with his dress always disordered, and taking snuff from a large, round tin wafer-box, holding, perhaps, half a pound, which he must use up in a day. He considers himself, beyond all question, the first portrait-painter of the age, and tells numbers of anecdotes concerning himself to prove it, with the utmost simplicity and unconsciousness of ridicule. His conclusion is not very wide of the truth. (1)

Boylston’s warmest wish

John Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1783, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828

John Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1783, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828

John Quincy Adams’ cousin Ward Nicholas Boylston – a wealthy Boston merchant and philanthropist – hoped to engage Stuart to paint a full-length portrait of Adams. In January 1822 Boylston wrote to Adams:

Dear Sir may recollect that I mentioned both to the President as well as to yourself, it was my wish to have your portrait as a companion to [the portrait of JQA’s father John Adams by John Singleton Copley, which the Adams family had loaned to Boylston], to be taken by the most eminent American artist, and at some future day placed in the hall of the Anatomical Museum & Library [which] I am preparing funds to build at Cambridge [Harvard], & are yearly accumulating to which I mean to add some of the best of my family pictures by Copley, not from my family pride or ostentatious view—but solely as evidences of the genius of a native American artist, who arrived at that high degree of merit in his profession by the strength of his own unassisted natural genius without the benefit of a master or the opportunity of example by visiting the regions of ancient science or deriving from the works others any ideas for the improvement of his own. (2)

As Adams replied that this was something he would consider, Boylston set aside $600 for the painting. Three years later, when John Quincy Adams became America’s 6th president, Boylston reminded him of his desire for a portrait.

There is…one thing which I crave as a favour, and heretofore repeatedly express’d the warmest wishes of my heart to see accomplished, and thought, or fancied had your assent, namely that you would sit for your portraiture to be the companion to that of my dearly beloved and venerated friend your father which you bestowed on me. The period has now arrived when of all others is the fittest to commence the design without the additional reason, that I am too far in advance of years to speculate on time. You will therefore my dear friend permit me to indulge the hope, that when you revisit Boston you will allow as much time as your leisure will admit to the completion of my wishes. In anticipation I invited Mr. [Gilbert Stuart] to view the portrait of your father, as to size the drawing of the attitude and costume to your direction. (3)

In October 1825, Adams posed for his portrait, much to Boylston’s delight.

A letter I rec’d yesterday from Mr. I.P. Davis informed me he had had an opportunity of seeing you at Mr. Quincys in company with Mr. Stuart, and that you had consented to sit to him for your full length portrait four days this week, for which you cannot conceive half the pleasure it convey’d to me, or the obligations I owe you for this condescension to my long and fervent petitions for this object of my wishes, and do hope that Mr. S will go on with diligent and unremitting labour to finish it before the end of the year. I shall haunt him as the evil spirit did Saul, and employ the energies of Mr. I.P. Davis who has great influence with him to get it out of his hands into mine with as few put offs as possible. (4)

The prerogative of genius

Boylston knew that Stuart often took a long time to finish his paintings. Stuart didn’t do sketches. He worked directly on the canvas, completing the head during the initial sittings, and then – in need of money – moved on to start the next commission. In 1825, a visitor noted that she saw in Stuart’s room “a portrait of Webster, Mr. Quincy, President Adams and lady, Bishop Griswold, Mr. Taylor &c. They were all unfinished.” (5) Like Copley, Stuart had once received a commission to paint a full-length portrait of John Adams. John Quincy Adams wrote to Copley in 1811, “in pursuance of this engagement he actually took a likeness of the face. But Mr. Stuart thinks it the prerogative of genius to disdain the performance of his engagements, and he did disdain the performance of that.” (6)

Among Stuart’s unfinished works was a portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the first wife of Napoleon’s brother Jérôme. According to Stuart’s daughter Jane:

Jerome Bonaparte, the husband of Madame Bonaparte, was anxious to have her portrait completed, it having been in an unfinished state for some time; but as sitters were crowding in upon my father, this request could not be immediately complied with. Bonaparte deemed it an insult to be so neglected, and when the two came together – Bonaparte and Stuart – the painter thought that the remarks addressed to him were impertinent: the result was Bonaparte could not get possession of his own or his wife’s portrait on any terms. He sent his friends to offer any price, but these offers made no impression on Stuart.

In time, Mr. Patterson, Mrs. Bonaparte’s father, came to Boston and sat for his portrait. In the course of conversation with Stuart, this picture was mentioned, when the painter had it brought down from the garret. Mr. Patterson was delighted with it, and my father presented it to him, which he could ill afford to do, to convince the world that he did not value his work as much as he did his position as an artist. (7)

President hornpipe dancer?

A delay in finishing John Quincy Adams’ portrait may have been caused by a dispute over what Adams should wear. Boylston wanted Adams to be painted in the formal attire that he wore as American Minister to the Court of St. James’s in London. He would thus match the garb in which his father appeared in the Copley portrait. Adams preferred a more everyday outfit. Boylston complained to John Adams:

[T]he intention of the pantaloons I shudder at. What? To convey the idea of the very first character in the nation as a sailor or hornpipe dancer is too intolerable to be admitted. (8)

John Quincy Adams refused to yield.

I have confirmed myself in the opinion that the portrait should be painted in plain black pantaloons and boots under them. A round hat should be also introduced, whether in one hand or on a table is immaterial. (9)

Boylston continued his objections.

The pantaloons…appear to meet universal disapprobation in Boston, and likewise in the circle at Quincy, particularly by my ever-beloved friend your father, who declares war against them, insomuch he says if he can procure a painters brush, & he lives to see it finished, in the manner you have directed, he will deface them and desires me to give you his opinion. (10)

Two months after the October sitting, there was still no progress on the painting. Boylston wrote to the President:

I spent an hour of admiration, in examining [the portrait], and really think Mr. Stuart never has, in any thing I’ve yet seen, equalled this splendid spirit of his great talents—but alas! I have an uphill labour to induce him to go on; he says his room is not large enough to finish items, but that he has an expectation Mr. Alston will oblige him by giving up his large room for that purpose; when that will be obtained is impossible for me to say. I have however some hopes, that in these hard & money pressing times, I shall starve him into action. (11)

But there was no further work on the portrait. In August of 1826, Boylston wrote to Adams that he was going to offer Stuart $100 in addition to the $600 “which has lain idle a year distinctly appropriated for that purpose and apart from any other fund. If he should die before he finishes…I see some difficulties that may arise to prostrate all my hopes.” (12)

Speculation is awake

Boylston was the first to die, on January 7, 1828. Stuart died six months later, on July 9. Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, the co-founder of Harvard Medical School, took up Boylston’s cause. He wrote to John Quincy Adams:

My old friend Gilbert Stewart died about ten days past; and yesterday I called upon the widow and children…. In the course of the visit we talked about the fine head he had painted of yourself…. I took pains to ascertain Mrs. Stewart’s ideas and feelings about it, knowing she had been assailed by some ‘speculators’ on that head.

She seemed resolved that no artist should paint a body to it if she could prevent it; for I perceived she had imbibed to the full all those high notions of her husband’s superiority to all other painters; and she spoke as if determined not to swerve from what she knew was Mr. Stewart’s sentiments. …

Mrs. Stewart told me that she was fixed in her wish that none but yourself should possess the head in question; but I drew from her this idea, that she was not willing that anyone should have the whole canvas, lest they should paint a body to it; and it is this which induces me to write at this time, to obtain your ideas and directions on the subject…. [S]peculation is awake, with a view, I suspect, of obtaining a popular picture for exhibition.

If in the regular course of probate business this picture should be exposed to sale by auction, how much above two hundred dollars would you wish any friend of yours to bid for yourself? Or rather, and with more propriety, will you express your ideas and wishes to me on the subject….

The widow expresses a reliance on my judgement and friendship: she shall have it, provided you obtain that head, and the canvas entire as it now is: for I fear if any one should make a bargain with her for the head, she would cut the canvas to a kit-kat size. I find she is disposed to adhere pertinaciously to the extravagant whims of her heteroclite husband. Neither solicitation nor argument, — nor honour, nor justice could move, at times, that strange man, Gilbert Stewart, who was about as (strange) selfish a man as ever lived. (13)

John Quincy Adams expressed interest in the painting, though he noted that “as it has been once paid for by Mr. Boylston, I should certainly not be inclined to pay for it again. In no event would I take it in any other condition than that in which it was left by Mr. Stewart, or with any condition other than that I should dispose of it as I might think proper.” (14)

Thomas Sully in harness

John Quincy Adams portrait by Thomas Sully, drawing 1824, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fletcher Fund, 1938)

John Quincy Adams by Thomas Sully, drawing 1824, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fletcher Fund, 1938)

The portrait – which Boylston had bequeathed to Harvard University – was acquired from Stuart’s estate. Thomas Sully was engaged to finish it.

Born in Britain on June 19, 1783, Sully emigrated to the United States with his family in 1792. He learned the art of miniature painting from his brother-in-law, John Belzons. In 1807, Sully spent three weeks studying portrait painting under Gilbert Stuart in Boston. He also went to England and studied with Benjamin West. Upon his return, Sully settled in Philadelphia and cornered the portrait market there. In December 1824, based on three sittings, he painted a full-length watercolour study of John Quincy Adams seated at a table, an oil study, and a bust-length portrait, before completing the final oil portrait. He was a logical choice to finish the Stuart portrait.

In August 1829, Adams sat for Sully, who made a study in chalk. Sully started work on Stuart’s unfinished canvas in December. He charged $350 to complete the painting. Adams saw the finished portrait at an exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum in September 1831.

My own portrait by Stuart and Sully was also there. Except the interest naturally felt in the portraits by those to whom the originals, many of them now deceased were known, there was not much to attract notice in this exhibition. (15)

Two years later, when asked for a picture to be used by the New York Mirror for a plate showing the first seven presidents, Adams wrote:

If you wish to have anything bearing a resemblance to me, the head of Stuart’s Portrait at Cambridge is the only one that can serve as an original for it…. No engraving from any other Pictures will, as a likeness be worth a five cent piece. (16)

The head was praised by others, including William Dunlap, who wrote:

If we judge by the portrait of the Hon. John Quincy Adams, the last head he [Stuart] painted, his powers of mind were undiminished to the last, and his eye free from the dimness of age. This picture was begun as a full-length, but death arrested the hand of the artist after he had completed the likeness of the face; and proved that, at the age of seventy four, he painted better than in the meridian of life. This picture has been finished; that is, the person and accessories painted, by that eminent and highly gifted artist, Mr. Thos. Sully; who, as he has said, would have thought it little less than sacrilege to have touched the head. (17)

The body of the portrait did not receive the same praise. Sculptor Horatio Greenough wrote:

I suffered grief at seeing Stuart’s Head of Mr. Adams filled up by somebody else and were it mine so help me God I would give a thousand dollars to restore the blank canvas as Stuart left it. Not that I think the artist who finished that picture incapable of producing a masterpiece but because the 2 minds do not work well in double harness. (18)

The John Quincy Adams portrait by Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully remains part of the Harvard University Portrait Collection.

You might also enjoy:

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

The Inauguration of John Quincy Adams

The New Year’s Day reflections of John Quincy Adams

Last Words of Famous People

  1. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. IV (Philadelphia, 1875), p. 130.
  2. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 14 January 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-3996. Boylston’s mother was a first cousin of John Quincy Adams’ grandmother.
  3. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 15 March 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4508.
  4. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 4 October 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4571.
  5. Mary Tyler Peabody Mann to Miss Rawlins Pickman, January 27, 1825, quoted in Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, Gilbert Stuart (New York, 2004), p. 318.
  6. George C. Mason, The Life and Works of Gilbert Stuart (New York, 1894), pp. 144-145.
  7. Martha Babcock Amery, The Domestic and Artistic Life of John Singleton Copley (Boston, 1882), p. 90
  8. “To John Adams from Ward Nicholas Boylston, 27 March 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4515.
  9. “From John Quincy Adams to Ward Nicholas Boylston, 8 November 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4580.
  10. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 22 December 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4594.
  11. Ibid.
  12. “From Ward Nicholas Boylston to John Quincy Adams, 15 August 1826,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4723.
  13. Quoted in Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 125-126.
  14. Ibid., p. 126.
  15. John Quincy Adams Diary 38, 1 October 1830 – 24 March 1832, pp. 261-262 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection. Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2004. http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries
  16. Oliver, Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife, p. 132.
  17. William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, Vol. I (New York, 1834), p. 209.
  18. Oliver, Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife, p. 133.

5 commments on “The John Quincy Adams Portrait by Gilbert Stuart & Thomas Sully”

  • Pim Waakop Reijers says:

    Nice article. I know that is was not uncommon that more than one painter (or sculptor) worked on a painting (or sculpture), but it seems so odd in this case. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in styles.
    The drawing by Thomas Sully reminded me of a Dutch contemporary called Christiaan Andriessen, whose drawings illustrate what every day life in the (what was then) Netherlands during the Napoleonic years was like.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Glad you liked the article, Pim. And thanks for the tip about Christiaan Andriessen. I had never heard of him – just looked him up. What wonderful drawings! They’re a great resource for anyone writing about the period.

  • Paula Wilcox says:

    Great post that I enjoyed reading

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I really think Mr. Stuart never has, in any thing I’ve yet seen, equalled this splendid spirit of his great talents—but alas! I have an uphill labour to induce him to go on.

Ward Nicholas Boylston