L40

Above: James Monroe by Gilbert Stuart, 1817

The Reverend Horace Holley from Boston was elected the president of Transylvania University in Kentucky in 1817. In the following years the University grew in stature and was compared to Harvard, Yale and Princeton, its grand reputation as a higher seat of learning reaching to Europe. Before ten years had passed however, Holley’s Christian persuasion, being a Unitarian, cost him his position and he resigned in March of 1827. After this, the great university declined. Holley went from Kentucky to Louisiana, where he attempted to re-organize the College of New Orleans. Late in the summer Horace and his wife Mary took passage for New York, but he contracted yellowfever, and passed away on July 31, 1827. Transylvania University existed until the Civil War, after which time it was never really revived as a University.

The minister was well connected, being friends with previous Presidents. He wrote to Mary: “Mr. Jefferson is a plain looking old gentleman, draped in a blue coat with yellow buttons, a buff jacket, a pair of snuff colored corduroy pantaloons, blue and white cotton stockings and black slippers up at the heels.” Holley’s papers include several letters from James Monroe. On his way to take up his position at the University, Mr Holley visited with the Monroes at the White House-he then wrote his wife a long letter describing the event, indicating each speaker in the conversation:

“There is a full length portrait of general Washington in the parlour, painted by Stewart. This led me to ask Mr. Monroe about the portrait of himself by Stewart. But I think I will give you the conversation as it happened…

[Holley] That is a painting by Stewart I perceive. 

[Mrs. Monroe] Yes, and it is a very good one.

[Holley] He is the best portrait painter in our country, and probably not inferior, in regard to the face, to any artist in the world. But he paints hands, limbs, and drapery badly. He spends the force of his genius on the characteristic expression of the countenance, and cares little for the other parts of the picture. 

[Monroe] He ought to paint nothing but the head, and should leave the rest to such artists as Copely, who was said to be the painter of collars, cuffs, and button holes. 

[Holley] Stewart is not ambitious of the distinction acquired in that way. His favorite expression in regard to his portraits, to show that he does as little as possible in the way of drapery, is “that picture has never been to the tailor’s” …Have you ever received your portrait from Stewart yet? 

[Monroe] No Sir. It is not his habit to finish a picture and send it home. Have you ever seen it at his room? 

[Holley] Yes, Sir, several times. 

[Monroe] How far is it finished? 

[Holley] Nothing but the head. 

[Mrs. Monroe] Is it a good likeness? 

[Holley] A remarkably good one. It is the general opinion that it is one of the artist’s happiest efforts with his pencil. You will be pleased with it, but will observe immediately, when you see it, that your husband was sun-burnt as a traveller ought to be, and that the artist has been so long in the habit of copying faithfully what he sees that he has given this in the shading of the picture. 

[Mrs. Monroe] I shall not like it the less for that. I think Stewart generally makes the color of the cheeks too brilliant, especially in the portraits of men, as in that of general Washington. 

[Holley] The painting of Mr. Monroe then will meet your taste precisely.“

So basically that one Gilbert Stuart painting done during Monroe’s first year of his presidency was down while he was sun-burnt and Gilbert Stuart is bad at drawing hands. 

"He is the best portrait painter in our country, and probably not inferior, in regard to the face, to any artist in the world. But he paints hands, limbs, and drapery badly. [He spends the force of his genius on the characteristic expression of the countenance, and cares little for the other parts of the picture.]" 

Holley was describing his encounter with the Monroes at the White House (1817), and all were discussing Stuart’s commission for James Monroe’s portrait. (The President’s hands were not included.)

The letter is quoted from “Gilbert Stuart” by Barratt and Miles, p 312, it is taken from the Horace Holley Papers, letter L40, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.