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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI instructor’s documentary to paint portrait of artist Gilbert Stuart

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- October 7, 2004 -- If you want to see a work of art by Gilbert Stuart, open your wallet. In the center of the one-dollar bill, sits George Washington looking somewhat glum. While millions of bucks get passed every day with Stuart’s famous painting of the father of our country, few can tell you about the artist whom contemporaries dubbed “the father of American portraiture.”

Filmmaker Jim Wolpaw, who teaches film courses for the University of Rhode Island’s Art Department, is creating an hour-long documentary about Gilbert called A Portrait from Life, which will shed some light on the prolific artist.

“Most people who make documentaries assume audience interest in the subject,” Wolpaw says. “I think the documentary should be used to make the audience interested in the subject and as a way to examine a subject and learn something new.”

Wolpaw, the writer/director/editor and his associates, Mike Fink, Steve Gentile, and Nancy Babine hope to complete the documentary by next summer. The documentary, which is partially funded by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and the Rhode Island Council of the Arts, will contain what fans have come to expect from a Wolpaw film--- scrupulously researched biographical material, backed by expert commentary, including comments by URI art historian Wendy Roworth, and interspersed with humor.

For example, when Stuart died, his family wasn’t able to afford a grave so they buried him with a relative. When descendents had enough money to unearth the artist and move him to Newport, they couldn’t locate him. Neither could the Boston Commons cemetery employee Wolpaw enlists.

The 56-year-old independent filmmaker’s unorthodox approach can be seen in his first film, about rock ‘n roll icon Bo Diddley’s visit to Lupo’s, a Providence nightclub, as well as in his 1985 Academy Award documentary nominee Keats and his Nightingale: A Blind Date, and in his more recent documentary, Loaded Gun: Life, Death, and Dickinson, which PBS aired last December.

The Brown University graduate became interested in Stuart when his associate Mike Fink, whose son was a summer docent at the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace in Saunderstown, suggested the artist would be an interesting subject.

A son of a snuff mill owner, Stuart took his first art lesson in Newport where his family had moved when he was 7 and where Wolpaw now resides.

During the course of his 72 years, Stuart painted more than 1,000 portraits of socially prominent men and women. In contrast to his well-groomed subjects, Stuart was disheveled, addicted to snuff and alcohol, and although he commanded high prices for his work, he spent more than he earned and teetered on the verge of bankruptcy throughout his life. Although he was an extraordinary artist, able to capture not only the likeness of his subjects but also their characters, he only enjoyed painting their faces, and was quickly bored with the rest of their bodies.

Washington sat twice for Stuart, the second painting appearing on the dollar bill. That portrait also became his cash cow since he’d dashed off at least 130 copies of it, placing the president in various locations -- Washington-at-Wilmington, Washington-at-Baltimore, etc.

Stuart also painted the portraits of Presidents Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Monroe. Yet the portraitist was hardly a patriot, according to Wolpaw. Stuart’s family members were loyal to the crown. Stuart himself went to London in 1775 where he was heralded as the next Gainsborough. To escape his creditors, Stuart fled to Dublin where, although he was considered a premier painter, he was thrown in debtor’s prison.

Wolpaw even brings in a therapist who suggests that Stuart, a father of 12 or 13 children, may have been manic-depressive, citing the artist’s extravagance, heightened sense of self, impulsiveness, and addictions.