Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2013 10:45 am | Updated: 8:39 am, Mon Apr 29, 2013.
NORTH KINGSTOWN — Meet Gilbert Stuart. He exaggerated all kinds of stories. He drank too much. He had a bad temper. He was said to keep a paid portrait if he didn’t like the person he painted.
“He’s such a fun character to play because he’s so flawed,” said David Ely, the actor who will portray the colonial artist Sunday at the Gilbert Stuart Museum and Birthplace’s annual Spring Fair. “He’s got a lot to say. He’s blunt.”
Stuart is best known for his three portraits of George Washington. He was a well-known portrait artist painting several crowned heads (Stuart would say he painted them all) in Europe. But because he lived beyond his means, the artist, whose work is seen by millions each day on the $1 bill, died broke.
For the last 15 years, Ely has put on his 18th-century Stuart costume bringing history to life at the museum’s fair.
The museum, which was Stuart’s birthplace, was originally a snuff mill his father operated. The mill failed, Ely said, because glass bottles for distributing the snuff became too expensive to purchase. Coincidentally, Stuart ended up with an addiction to snuff that lasted a lifetime.
“He had a huge snuff box,” Ely said. “He left it at a friend’s [who] had a servant bring it back in a wheelbarrow as a joke.”
Ely will spend Sunday walking the museum’s grounds interacting with crowds and revealing Stuart’s loud personality.
“He’s so opinionated. It makes people react toward him,” he said. “I’ll look at the museum and say, ‘Can you believe someone as talented as me started out in this hubble?’”
Before coming to Sauderstown, Ely gets into character by reviewing a book about Stuart, refreshing his memory of his favorite moments of Stuart’s early life in Newport and Narragansett and his time in Europe.
In Stuart’s time, painters were expected to beautify their subjects, Ely said. Stuart ignored this unwritten rule and painted people as they looked – all flaws included. Ely shared a story of a man who brought in his wife for Stuart to paint. The man wasn’t happy with the finished product. In a now famous line, Gilbert responded, “What a business is this of a portrait painter! You bring him a potato and expect he will paint you a peach.”
While Stuart was in Europe, he studied under painter Benjamin West. Due to his reckless spending, creditors were soon after him and threw him into a prison in Ireland. Word soon spread of Stuart’s jail stint. Royalty paid Stuart to paint them while they sat outside his jail cell. According to Ely, Stuart told people he painted his way out of jail.
Once free, Stuart returned to America and finally got the chance to paint the one person he knew would be his cash cow – George Washington. Ely said the relationship between Washington and Stuart was strange and many different stories and viewpoints about their interactions exist. Stuart painted three portraits of Washington but decided he wanted to keep the originals to make copies for money. Time after time, Stuart would tell Washington and his wife, Martha, he was not finished. Finally, he gave them a copy. Stuart, Ely said, would say Washington wanted him to make copies of the portraits, which was a lie.
Around twenty years ago, the late Rhode Island painter Maxwell Mays, who was known for his historical paintings of Rhode Island, saw Ely performing in a state history series where actors go into schools to perform as historical characters. Mays told Ely he wanted him to perform as Stuart. Ely was immediately attracted to Stuart’s unique personality and has created that character ever since. When he isn’t being Stuart, Ely teaches theater at Lincoln School in Providence.
Ely is looking forward to Sunday and hopes a Washington impersonator will be there, so they can humorously engage. He may bring people into the museum and talk about some of the portraits, including one where Washington is standing by a horse’s behind.
“There’s an obvious message being sent [by Stuart] that George Washington is a horse’s ass,” Ely said.
Besides the bragging, boasting and outspokenness that Ely gets to display, the fun part, he said, is seeing the audience change their mindset when they realize how people thought in the 18th-century. Everything Ely does in his Stuart performance is improvisation, and he is always willing to engage with anyone who shows interest.
“I want them to encounter someone who is a colorful character,” said Ely. “I want them to have a stimulating interaction with the charter.”
Spring Fair/Fish on the Run
Gilbert Stuart Museum and Birthplace
Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.
815 Gilbert Stuart Road