Gilbert Stuart. North Kingston, Rhode Island 1755-1828 Boston. John Adams, ca. 1815. Oil on panel, 26 x 21 in (66.2 x 52.8 cm). Gift of the estate of William Smith Shaw, 1826.
Although this painting arrived at the Boston Athenæum in 1826 with no specific attribution as to its creator, within a decade it was being identified as a copy by Gilbert Stuart Newton (1794-1835) of an original portrait by Newton’s uncle and teacher, Gilbert Stuart. Tradition or word-of-mouth appears to have been the only evidence for this early nineteenth-century attribution; but recently, art historian Ellen Miles has uncovered evidence to support an attribution of the work to Stuart himself.
Gilbert Stuart had begun painting John Adams’s portrait from life in Philadelphia by 1800, possibly on a commission from the Massachusetts state legislature. At about the same time, Stuart began work on a pendant portrait of Adams’s wife, Abigail Smith. In keeping with Stuart’s characteristic procrastination, however, neither portrait was finished until 1815, when they were finally sent to John Quincy Adams, who, along with other family members, had doggedly encouraged Stuart to finish them. As he did with other of his paintings, Stuart made at least one replica of his image of John Adams and a number of other artists, including painters Asher B. Durand and Samuel F. B. Morse and engraver J. B. Longacre, copied or used the painting as the model for their own images of the man. Stuart’s daughter, Jane, also made copies of the portrait, and at least one copy by Stuart’s nephew Gilbert Stuart Newton is documented. Given these facts, confusion over the attribution of the Athenæum’s version and its subsequent assignment to Newton is understandable, albeit now refutable. 
On July 11, 1825, Seth Bass, in a report to the Trustees, made a summary inventory of books and other property belonging to the Athenæum. Therein, Bass listed a “Portrait of Adams by Stuart” which “belongs to [William Smith] Shaw,” who had served for many years as the Athenæum’s librarian. (Bass clarified that the painting’s frame, which had been purchased by the Athenæum, did not belong to Shaw). An inventory of the Athenæum’s holdings made in 1833 did not ascribe an artist’s name the portrait, but the next year, the work appeared on another inventory at which time it was attributed, for no stated reason, to Newton. It was still bearing that attribution in 1856 when it was included in the Athenæum’s annual exhibition, in 1877 when it was lent to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and in 1900 when it was returned from there to the Athenæum.
William Smith Shaw (1778-1826) was a son of Elizabeth Smith, Abigail Adams’s sister, and her first husband Rev. John Shaw. The younger Shaw was graduated from Harvard College in 1798 and then served as private secretary to his uncle John Adams. In 1805, he helped establish the Anthology Society, the precursor of the Boston Athenæum, for which he served as librarian beginning in 1807, the year of the latter institution’s founding.
Once Gilbert Stuart finally completed the portraits of Shaw’s aunt and uncle Adams in 1815, Shaw was instrumental in retrieving the paintings from the dilatory artist’s Boston studio. Ellen Miles has identified a document, signed by Stuart and dated December 9, 1815, acknowledging the receipt of one hundred dollars from Shaw for two portraits of John Adams by Stuart. One of these is the portrait that was owned by the Adams family and that is now in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the second was retained by Shaw. Since the Athenæum’s portrait of Adams is documented as having come from Shaw’s estate, it seems very likely that this is that second image, painted by Stuart, that is documented in the receipt of 1815.
Shaw resigned his position as Athenæum librarian in January 1823 and the following year the institution’s Trustees commissioned a portrait of him from Gilbert Stuart. True to form, Stuart did not finish his portrait until the fall of 1827, six months after Shaw’s death on April 25, 1826. It was then sent to the Athenæum, where it remains.
During Shaw’s long affiliation with the Athenæum, he lent, informally it seems, many of his own books and other possessions to the institution. At the same, time he apparently (unofficially) borrowed books from the Library and took them to his own home. Over the years, these items became so commingled, one group with the other, that the administrator of Shaw’s estate, Rev. Joseph B. Felt, was obliged to enter into a contract with the Athenæum for the proper distribution of Shaw’s possessions. Besides returning books and other items to the Athenæum, Felt also spearheaded the gift to the Athenæum of certain of Shaw’s possessions, including a collection of coins and medals, and, apparently, Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of John Adams.
David B. Dearinger from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 206-209. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.
For a history of the portraits, see Ellen G. Miles’s entry on them in Carrie Rebora Barratt and Ellen G. Miles, Gilbert Stuart (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005), 217-222, nos. 58-59. Also see Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John and Abigail Adams (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 132-178. Both portraits are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
The documented copy by Newton of Stuart’s Adams is owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. See Oliver, 176-178.
The various copies are discussed in Oliver.
Seth Bass, “Schedule of Books and other Property belonging to the Boston Athenæum,” Trustees Records 3 (July 11, 1825), 85, BA archives.
Isaac P. Davis, “Report of Committee on the Paintings etc.,” BA Letter Book 7 (December 4, 1833); “A list of Paintings belonging to the Boston Athenæum,” ca. 1834, BA archives.
“Agreement with Revd. Jos. B. Felt. Adm. Of W. S. Shaw decd.,” November 2, 1826, Trustees Records, BA archives. The contract mostly involved the trading of books back to their proper owner—the Athenæum or Shaw’s heirs, as the case may have been—but in any event, the Athenæum’s Trustees were most grateful for and laudatory of the Felt’s efforts (“Report of Comm. On Settlement with Adm. of the late Wm. S. Shaw Esq.,” December 18, 1826, Trustees Records, BA archives).