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Portrait of General Peter Gansevoort

On view

Portrait of General Peter Gansevoort

Artist: Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828)

Date: 1794
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 30 1/8 x 25in. (76.5 x 63.5cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 54.88
Label Text
A military officer during the American Revolution, Peter Gansevoort successfully defended the American fort at what is now Rome, New York. Ever after, he was venerated at “the Hero of Fort Stanwix.” After leaving the army, Gansevoort returned to his native Albany, New York, where he managed the family businesses of lumbering and brewing while continuing his affiliation with the New York Militia.

The painter of this work, Gilbert Stuart, is perhaps best known for his portraits of George Washington. His most famous depiction of Washington is reproduced on the dollar bill.

Text Entries

Scion of an old Dutch family living in Albany, Peter Gansevoort served as a line officer in the Revolution from 1775 to 1781.The highlight of his military career was a three-week successful defense of an American fort at what is now Rome, New York. Ever after, especially in his own family, he was venerated as “the Hero of Fort Stanwix.” After leaving the army he returned to Albany, where he managed family businesses of lumbering and brewing while maintaining military status by an affiliation with the New York Militia. On October 8, 1793, he was commissioned a major-general. It may well have been this event that prompted him to go to New York to be painted by Gilbert Stuart.

The artist was newly arrived in New York in 1793 after spending eighteen years in England and Ireland absorbing and polishing all the fine points of the art of painting fashionable portraiture. Back home in America, he thus had no competitor in the production of stylish and elegant portraits, and his work was immediately in demand. He stayed in New York for only one year before moving on to the seat of the federal government in Philadelphia, but in that one year he painted a number of handsome portraits of local sitters. In painting Gansevoort, Stuart used his usual format for a bust-length portrait. The head and body form a triangle set slightly off center. The dark sky serves to increase the luminosity of the powdered hair, pleasant face, and the light-toned elements of the sitter’s dress. The gold shoulder epaulette, the buttons of the uniform coat, and the breast badge of the Society of the Cincinnati are painted with a bravura haziness, which adds decorative interest to the portrait, but which does not provide undue distraction from the importance of the blue-eyed gaze of the sitter.

Peter Gansevoort obviously wished to nurture his reputation as a military hero and Stuart did not disappoint him. Within the sitter’s family until well into the present century the portrait had almost the status of a saintly relic. Peter’s grandson, the author Herman Melville, apparently had a copy painted for himself by Joseph A. Ames.(1) This painted copy is lost, but Melville’s own, overly romantic, verbal copy survives in his novel, Pierre. The young hero of the novel is given a departed military grandfather, a character based upon Melville’s own grandfather, Peter Gansevoort, and the household owns a portrait of him, which Melville describes as “a glorious gospel framed and hung upon the wall, and declaring to all people, as from the Mount, that man is a noble, godlike being, full of choicest juices; made up of strength and beauty."(2)

Newton Arvin, a biographer of Melville, made the irreverent observation that the portrait shows “the counte- nance of a Dutch brewer refined and ennobled.”(3)  A perceptive observation, but also one that is a testament to Gilbert Stuart’s ability to flatter his sitter. Knowing of the penchant to flatter, one small detail of the portrait becomes even more surprising: on the sitter’s right cheek, just next to his nose, Stuart has indicated a lump, or wen. We can only surmise that it must have been even more prominent than he painted it and an important detail of the face that even the artist’s abilities could not make go away.

1. Elizabeth Melville, the author’s wife, in an undated notebook entry reported “our portrait of Gen.

Gansevoort is a copy from Stuart‘s by Joseph Ames [1816—72].” Merton M. Sealts, Jr., The Early Lives of Melville (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974), p. 176.

2. Herman Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, vol. 9 of The Works of Herman Melville (New York: Russell S1 Russell, 1963), p. 4o.

3. Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (New York: Viking Press, 1957), p. 9.


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