Gilbert Stuart is responsible for composing the iconic images of our nation’s most historic figures, including the Athenaeum of 1796, the famed unfinished portrait of President George Washington that has served as the image on the one-dollar bill for over a century. His masterful handling of his subjects shaped the entirety of American portraiture, and his works continue to be placed as the most important and remarkable portraits ever painted.
Stuart showed great promise as an artist as early as the age of seven. In 1770, he became acquainted with Scottish portraitist Cosmo Alexander, a visitor of the colonies who became a tutor to Stuart. Stuart moved to Scotland with Alexander in 1771 to finish his studies, however, Alexander died in Edinburgh one year later. Stuart tried unsuccessfully to maintain a living and pursue his painting career but was eventually forced to return to his native Rhode Island in 1773.
His ambitions to become a painter were jeopardized by the outbreak of the American Revolution. Seeking a means of escape, he decided to set sail for England in 1775. He quickly became a student of fellow American portraitist Benjamin West, whose tutelage was so great, that Stuart was exhibiting at the Royal Academy within two years. He found popularity painting important British political figures, but was forced to flee the country due to the incredible debt he amassed, returning to America in 1793. In 1795 he moved to near Philadelphia, where he opened his famous studio. It was here that he would gain not only a foothold in the art world, but lasting eminence with his portraits of the most important Americans of the day. He later moved to Boston and enjoyed continued notoriety.
The subject of this painting, Sir Timothy Pickering, was a highly respected officer of the American Revolution and Federalist politician who served with distinction in the first two U.S. cabinets. During the battle against England, Pickering served in several capacities under General George Washington, among them quartermaster general (1780–85). In 1786, after taking up residence in Philadelphia, he helped resolve the dispute with Connecticut settlers over claims to Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley and helped develop the town of Wilkes-Barre. He held the posts of Indian commissioner (1790–95), postmaster general (1791–95), secretary of war (1795), and secretary of state (1795–1800). He was dismissed from office by President John Adams after a policy dispute.
During the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, Pickering led the Federalist opposition in Congress, serving as senator from Massachusetts from 1803 to 1811, and as a member of the House of Representatives from 1813 to 17. Remaining friendly to England and fearing the power of Napoleon, he bitterly opposed the War of 1812. After his retirement from Congress, he devoted himself to agricultural experimentation and education.