Lost Masterpieces

The Presidential Portraits That Went Up in Flames in 1851

When fire ravaged the Library of Congress in 1851, the cultural casualties included portraits of America’s first three presidents—Washington, Adams and Jefferson—by Gilbert Stuart.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/ The Daily Beast

Just before 8 a.m. on Christmas Eve in 1851, the captain of the Capitol police was making his rounds when he smelled smoke outside the door to the Library of Congress which, at that time, was housed in the Capitol building. He broke open the door and discovered a raging fire consuming the books and furniture at one end of the room.

From there, the contemporary newspaper reports read as something of a comedy of errors.

Captain John W. Jones initially thought that the fire could be put out with “the use of a half dozen buckets of water.” He and others who rushed to his aid gave this approach their best effort.

But after working for an hour or two—yes, reports say their attempt at heroism lasted for over a full hour—they gave up and finally sent someone running for the fire department.

But the fire department had just returned from a night fighting a nearby hotel blaze and they allegedly were not inclined to believe the chosen messenger that there was actually a problem raging at the Capitol. “Owing to the improbability of his report, it was not till after considerable delay that he could procure any aid from them,” the North Carolina Standard reported.

When the firemen finally arrived at the scene, they found that the extreme winter temperatures had frozen the water in their hoses. So, of course, they spent some time warming up their equipment to get it back up and running.

Despite this series of events, the Burlington Free Press reported that the full force of the Washington fire department as well as a company from Alexandria were on hand “rendering efficient services.”

As the smoke began to clear on the “blackened mass of ruins,” the extent of the cultural damage was revealed. Two-thirds of the library’s 55,000-book literary collection had been ruined, as well as an assortment of maps, papers, and artwork. Among the latter were three paintings of the country’s first three presidents by the artist considered to be the greatest American portraitist, Gilbert Stuart.

Stuart was born in Rhode Island in 1755, and, by all accounts, his artistic talent was clear from an early age; by 13, he was painting portraits of the high society of Newport. Wanting to cultivate his career—and sensing war on the horizon—Stuart decamped for England in early 1775. He conveniently stayed away for 17 years, apprenticing under painters and creating a name for himself as a superior portraitist abroad.

He who had gone away a poor lad to seek his fortune had now come back a successful man with a European reputation, and immediately he was besieged with patrons.

But watching his native country from Dublin, where he was located at the time, he had a strong urge to paint the first American president. So he made his way back to the United States, where no one seemed to hold a grudge that he had abandoned his country and decamped to enemy lands during the bloody war for independence.

“He who had gone away a poor lad to seek his fortune had now come back a successful man with a European reputation, and immediately he was besieged with patrons,” read a retrospective piece in The San Francisco Call in 1900.

George Washington sat for his first portrait by Gilbert Stuart in Philadelphia in 1795. According to early reports, “it made a great sensation.”

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Portraits of America’s first forefather would become Stuart’s “nest egg.” In this long-ago time before the advent of photography, owning copies of famous paintings of the leading American figures was all the rage. So Stuart would use his original paintings as the guide for copies that he would sell widely.

These copies brought in a lot of money, so much so, that Stuart got into a bit of trouble when prioritizing his work. One of his most famous paintings of Washington is known as The Athenaeum, and it was so striking that it was used as the image that is still printed on the $1 bill today.

But Stuart became so busy copying his bust of Washington, that he never actually finished the original painting. When he died in 1828, The Athenaeum remained one of his incomplete canvases.

Without the slightest cause he would abandon a picture and nothing, not even a woman’s tears, could induce him to continue.

Like many who have struggled with the perils of fame, Stuart was a complicated man.

According to The San Francisco Call, “He had a curious disposition; at times he was the most charming of men; at others rough and irritable. He made many enemies and even alienated friends who knew the real warmth of his heart; without the slightest cause he would abandon a picture and nothing, not even a woman’s tears, could induce him to continue; although a wonderful moneymaker, he died poor, leaving his family entirely unprovided for.”

Even his most famous patrons struggled to make him fulfill his obligations. Thomas Jefferson sat for Stuart for the first time in May of 1800, and again in 1805. It would be 21 years from that first sitting until he finally received delivery of one of the several portraits that Stuart painted of him (and that Jefferson had paid for).

Speaking generally, no penance is like having one’s picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper.

But despite his sometimes difficult nature, Stuart wasn’t an altogether unpleasant artist to pose for. According to John Adams, “Speaking generally, no penance is like having one’s picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation.”

Stuart made many portraits of the early presidents of the United States, and among these he completed at least two series of seated portraits of the first five.

One of these series was on loan to the Library of Congress in 1851 when a defective flue connecting the basement furnace to the library’s quarters went up in flames.

Among the books and papers burned to a crisp were the masterful portraits of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson painted by “the greatest of the early American painters and surely one of the most remarkable of the art products of this country.”

In a statement given after that tragic December day, the head librarian, John S. Meehan, said that the events were all the more troubling to him “as no fires have been used in [the library] for a long time, and no candles, lamps, or other lights have been used in it during the whole time that it has been under my charge.” Sadly, nobody checked the flue.

In the end, the Library of Congress disaster ended as well as could be expected. Congress authorized funds to replace the lost books, and in 1897, it was relocated to a building of its own.

But the events of 1851 were all the more unfortunate given that this wasn’t the first time disaster had struck the country’s literary archives.

When the British stormed D.C. in 1814 during the War of 1812, they burned down the Capitol, including the early Library of Congress and it’s 3,000 volumes. In response to this event, Jefferson donated a large portion of his private library to serve as the foundation of the reestablished collection. Much of this was lost in the fire 37 years later.

He died in debt, and, without the funds to bury him properly, his family was forced to inter him in an unmarked grave.

Stuart’s three paintings weren’t the only aspect of the artist’s work to end in tragedy. Despite his sterling reputation as one of the preeminent painters in the country, Stuart never got a handle on his money issues. He earned an incredible profit over his lifetime, but he was just plain bad at business.

He died in debt, and, without the funds to bury him properly, his family was forced to inter him in an unmarked grave. When they finally did raise the money to move him to a nicer—and marked—resting place, they discovered that no one remembered where exactly he was buried.

However, 190 years after his death, people in the United States and around the world continue to trade American dollar bills, all clearly marked by Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington.