New-York Historical Society

"Pitching headlong into misery"

Long before becoming arguably the most celebrated portraitist in American history, even Gilbert Stuart was a starving artist – literally.

With a revolution breaking out in his homeland, Stuart had arrived in England in autumn 1775. But little did he know he would later be describing this choice as “pitching headlong into misery” after failing to generate adequate income. By the time of this undated letter (believed to be around Easter, 1777), he was broke and prepared to lay it on pretty thick to another famous American painter, Benjamin West.

Gilbert Stuart to Benjamin West, [circa Easter, 1777]. (AHMC – Stuart, Gilbert)

Stuart implored the successful West to help him and spared no pathetic detail, commenting “[I] find myself Ignorant without Business or Friends, without the necessarys of life so far that for some time I have been reduced to one miserable meal a day & frequently not even that.” (For a full transcription, see below.)

His desperate act worked, and nearly twenty years later, he would be painting his most famous portrait – George Washington.

Interestingly, the interior pages of Stuart’s letter reveal what appear to be preparatory sketches for an unidentified painting, perhaps the work of West?

Interior pages of Stuart’s letter to Benjamin West. (AHMC – Stuart, Gilbert)

______________________________________________

Mr. West Monday Evening No 30 Grace Church Street

Sir,

The benevolence of your disposition encourageth me, while my necessity urgeth me, to write you on so disagreeable a subject. I hope I have not offended by taking this liberty. My poverty and ignorance are my only excuse. Let me beg that I may not forfeit your good will, which to me is so desirable. Pity me, good sir. I’ve just arrived at the age of twenty-one, an age when most young men have done something worthy of notice, and find myself ignorant, without business or friends, without the necessities of life, so far that for some time I have been reduced to one miserable meal a day, and frequently not even that. Destitute of the means of acquiring knowledge, my hopes from home blasted, and incapable of returning thither, pitching headlong into misery, I have this only hope I pray that it may not be too great to live and learn without being a burden. Should Mr. West in his abundant kindness think of aught for me, I shall esteem it an obligation which shall bind me for ever with gratitude. With the greatest humility, Sir, yours at command, G.C. Stuart

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