Gilbert Stuart
James Madison, c. 1821
Oil on wood
25 11/16 x 21 3/8 in. (65.3 x 54.3 cm)
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund 1979.4.2
Image Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington


4th President of the United States; Term of Office: 1809-1817
Gilbert Stuart’s 1821 portrait of an elderly James Madison, finished 4 years after he left office, suggests that the American populace was a somewhat confused over the complex legacy of the 4th president of the United States. The sitter’s eyes seem to shift from green to blue to brown in the light, while his heart-shaped face and ruddy complexion give him an appearance that is simultaneously youthful and frail. The modeling of Madison’s frock coat, shirt, and cravat are excessively detailed in comparison to the shadows playing across his face and the oddly abstracted folds of the green curtain in the background. The statesman is positioned towards the left, away from the light; the opposite direction from that faced by his predecessors, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, in Stuart’s well-known portraits of them. Overall, Madison’s portrait provides a strong yet slightly perplexing testament to an individual known for valuing compromise, human dignity, and national unity over ideological and political discord.


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