This is the third in a series of posts on favorite paintings from the National Gallery in Washington.
It’s certainly not the colors that are the appeal here: it’s the confidence in the man as he glides over the ice. I’ve read that skating with arms crossed was typical when this work was painted – but I’m not a great skater, so to me the pose reads as someone who’s so good he doesn’t need to keep both hands free for the grabbing at the railing or other skaters.
Looking at it again (I haven’t seen it in person for over a decade), it’s not just the crossed arms that show confidence. It’s the slant of the hat, the slight smile, and the way the back foot is lifted. (My skates are both in contact with the ice, always.)
Stuart, an American who had just finished a five-year apprenticeship with Benjamin West in London, had his first taste of fame when he exhibited this portrait. Formal portraits had previously been in the grand manner: sitters in their finest outfits in the best room of the house, or posed against an elegant backdrop in the artist’s studio. But when William Grant arrived for his first sitting with Stuart, he mentioned that it would be a great day for skating: so off he and and the artist went. Stuart returned with the idea of painting Grant as an elegant skater.
What I’ll look for when I see it again
- The size: it’s 8 x 5 feet. A small-scale reproduction won’t have the same effect.
- The actual colors, because there’s a lot of variation in the reproductions, even between printed publications of the National Gallery and its website pics.
- The details of his face.
- The way the ice is painted.