Portrait of Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the Patroon
The execution of this extraordinarily penetrating likeness of John Jay (1745–1829) is bracketed by the creation of two crucial treaties between the United States and Great Britain in which Jay was the central figure: the Definitive Peace Treaty after the American Revolution and the Jay Treaty. On September 3, 1783, the Definitive Peace Treaty was signed. Jay was one of the four American signatories, but, more importantly, it was at his insistence that the United States had dealt directly with the British negotiator without consulting the French or Spanish. The latter countries, whose opposition to Britain had considerably aided the American cause, were not especially supportive of American claims, and Jay’s maneuver resulted in far more favorable terms than Congress had expected or the European allies had wished.
Following the successful conclusion of the Treaty, an exhausted Jay went to England to recuperate. While there, he sat to the young Stuart for his portrait. This may be the first instance of what was to be almost habitual with Stuart, the passage of many years between the sitting and his delivery of a portrait.1Ide, no. 2. The portrait was delivered to Mrs. Jay in New York on December 5, 1794, while Jay, just shy of his forty-ninth birthday, was still in London.
In 1794, Jay, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was dispatched once more by President Washington to England as a diplomat. Numerous points of bitter dispute had remained outstanding since the war, most of them involving commerce. “My objects are,” wrote Washington, “to prevent a war, if justice can be obtained.” Jay negotiated the treaty (concluded November 19) which bears his name and that typifies his advocacy of the principle of arbitration. It was grudgingly ratified by a nationalistic Congress. Although Jay was vilified by its opponents, the treaty eventually gained acceptance and is now acknowledged as one of his chief accomplishments. The Jay Treaty was the last phase of the nearly twenty-year War of Independence.
The John Jay in Stuart’s picture is the John Jay of 1783, then on the eve of his thirty-eighth birthday.2This is confirmed by comparison with the portrait of Jay in the robes of the Chief Justice, painted entirely in 1794 and clearly of a substantially older man. That portrait belongs to Peter Jay but has been on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art. See Gilbert Stuart: Portraitist of the Young Republic, 1755–1828, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art and Providence, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1967), 72, no. 25, ill. 73; and McLanathan, 76 (ownership mistakenly assigned to the Department of State). Completion and delivery of the earlier portrait at about the same time as the 1794 portrait was undoubtedly stimulated by Stuart’s hope that Jay’s recommendation would result in a commission to paint President Washington. It did, and, in March 1975, Stuart went to Philadelphia to meet the President. The hawklike features and the intelligent head convey the forceful personality and judicial mind for which he was admired. His aristocratic temperament is clear, but the modicum of vanity that was a part of it is not shown, nor does Stuart give the features the idealistic gloss that came easily to his brush. Here, Stuart’s characteristic method of laying in the head, alone against a patch of dark ground color (see Acc. No. 81.54), is apparent in the pentimento of a circular dark area visible through the top layer of paint. But Stuart must have sketched in much of the upper body, too: the right hand is so beautifully modeled and so perfectly placed in space that it must be from life.
While Jay’s features are those of the young diplomat whose popularity among his countrymen peaked following the 1783 Definitive Peace Treaty, the accessories, undoubtedly painted much closer to the 1794 delivery of the painting, suggest the narrative of the intervening years. Although books and papers are common enough in portraits of writers, philosophers, and others, they surely have a more specific intent here. The papers stand for the two treaties, and one of the books must represent The Federalist, the collected articles in support of the new Constitution written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. These articles had appeared in the press from October 1787 until April 1788, and the pseudonymous authors were soon identified. Of the three, Jay enjoyed the greatest prestige. In many minds, he was second only to Washington among the founding fathers. These famous papers appeared midway through the gestation of the painting, at a time when Jay was also Secretary for Foreign Affairs for the Continental Congress. Although Jay only contributed five of the eighty-five papers, he also published a further defense of the Constitution, An Address to the People of New York. The second volume on the table may allude to this essay.
John Jay has not entered the popular historical pantheon in the way that Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson have. He was neither a military hero nor a cracker-barrel philosopher nor yet the author of our Declaration of Independence; his virtues and achievements seem more practical than patriotic, more recondite than revolutionary. But with his brilliance and integrity, combined with the common sense that knew “that a treaty is only another name for a bargain,” he drove the bargain that obtained recognition of American independence.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.