Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Painter Gilbert Stuart's Homestead, Saunderstown, Rhode Island

            As I travel throughout the United States, I discover a wealth of interesting sites and attractions—some of them off the beaten path but well worth a visit.  The following story is taken from a 2011 visit to one of these places.
          Gilbert Stuart is widely considered to be one of America's foremost portraitists.  Did you know that if you live in the United States a little bit of Gilbert Stuart’s artwork passes through your hands most every day?  He painted the likeness of George Washington that graces our one dollar bill.  In addition to painting George Washington, Gilbert Stuart went on to produce portraits of our first six presidents. 

For only one dollar, you too can possess Gilbert Stuart's
most enduring work of art.

          The 1750 Gilbert Stuart Homestead was my destination on a cool, crisp New England September morning.  I paid the $7.00 admission and Peggy conducted my personal tour.  We walked from the gift shop to the first stop on our tour, the homestead's grist mill. 
          As we entered the grist mill Peggy pointed to two giant grindstones, each weighing two and a half tons.  She then relayed the following tidbit, which has become a well-known phrase:  “While the corn was being ground, the operator on the top floor who was feeding corn into the mill would keep his nose close to the stone while sniffing the air for smoke.  It was not uncommon for fires to start due to friction that would occur if the stones got too close to one another.  A fire between the stones would ruin the corn, so the operator up above would shout to the mill worker down below to lower the bottom stone.”  Have you guessed the common idiomatic expression?  It’s “Keep your nose to the grindstone.”
         Peggy and I walked over to the pond and stream that were dammed for the mill.  Every year River Herring swim upstream from the ocean to spawn in the pond.  River Herring are a threatened species and a new dam and spawning ladder will have to be built to accommodate them.  Peggy said that when the River Herring hatch in the pond scores of birds, including herons, are attracted to the property to fish for them.

Gilbert Stuart Homestead:  Grist Mill on the right,
Entrance and Gift shop to the left.
          Next on the tour was Gilbert Stuart’s birthplace, an impressive home with wide plank floors and windows all original to the 1750 house.  The dwelling boasts a cheerful “family room” and a great room in the basement as attractive as in any modern home.  Many of Gilbert Stuart’s paintings adorn the walls, but most are reproductions because the originals are displayed in museums throughout the country.  

Family room in the Stuart Homestead.
Two of Stuart's George Washington paintings adorn the walls.

            Gilbert's family moved to Newport when he was a boy and his talent was first noticed by the eye doctor who cleared up an ocular infection for the 13-year-old lad.  In a display of gratitude, Gilbert painted a picture of the physician’s two dogs.  Recognizing the expertise shown by this painting, the ophthalmologist paid for young Gilbert to train at an art school in Scotland for two years.

"Dr. Hunter's Dogs".  This stunning painting was completed
by Stuart at age 13.  Extraordinary!

In his adult life Stuart was plagued by addictions to snuff and alcohol and had a series of strokes when he was in his 60’s.  He returned to his original homestead in his later years.  
After we left the house I thanked Peggy and then walked one of the wooded trails on the property.  The tour was both fascinating and educational; if you’re ever traveling near Saunderstown, Rhode Island consider a visit to the Gilbert Stuart Homestead.
Learn more about the Gilbert Stuart Homestead on this website:   http://www.gilbertstuartmuseum.com/

Next Week

in celebration of 

Valentine's Day

journey with me to

The Romantic Riversong Inn 

of Estes Park, Colorado.


  1. Hi Rita,

    Very interesting and informative report. Neither I nor my wife have ever visited the Gilbert Stuart Homestead, but thanks to you, it's on our radar screen!

    Regarding the image of George Washington on the $1 bill, it's one of those things that is so obvious that it's overlooked (at least by me). However, you really bring the point home with your statement about you too can possess Gilbert Stuart's most enduring work of art for only a dollar! :)


  2. Hi Rita,

    What a terrific story and place to visit. I had no idea, and I lived in Rhode Island for four years! As John says, it's definitely on my radar now, thanks to you.

    Looks like a beautiful old New England home, as well. I look forward to visiting.

    Thanks for the tip!

  3. John and Vickie:
    I had almost decided against visiting the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace but I read a blurb in one of my guidebooks about the artwork on our one dollar bill—and so I stopped by on my way from Little Compton to Watch Hill. I'm so glad that I did! It was one of those educational, interesting and beautiful spots that one sometimes finds off the beaten path.
    The homestead and grounds are classic New England. The woods were full of birdsong; a pond on the property could easily have been Thoreau's Walden pond.
    Definitely worth a visit!