Portrait of Commodore William Bainbridge
After USS Constitution‘s impressive defeat of the British frigate HMS Java on December 29, 1812, Commodore William Bainbridge and his victorious crew became national heroes. On March 1, 1813, the Common Council of New York City voted to honor Bainbridge by commissioning his likeness for their Gallery of Portraits. They turned to painter Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), the “Father of American Portraiture.” Bainbridge sat for Stuart in the artist’s Boston studio, but the temperamental artist and his sitter did not get along. Stuart refused to finish the portrait. Ultimately, though, Bainbridge acquired his portrait, had it altered and finished, and it descended through his family. The face of the oil portrait exhibits some of Stuart’s naturalistic characteristics: Bainbridge’s ruddy cheeks contrast with his pale forehead, denoting a man who has spent years at sea wearing a hat. The fact that the Common Council of New York City commissioned Gilbert Stuart to paint William Bainbridge reflects the honors bestowed on early naval heroes by a grateful nation.