Friday, March 31, 2006

The Debate Over Gilbert Stuart's Birthplace

Who made Stonehenge and how? Was there really an Atlantis? Where was Gilbert Stuart born?: Such are the great questions of our time. With spring comes the opening of the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum. While the stuff found in the museum is authentic, the whole "birthplace" thing seems to be up for debate:
Web sites list the artist, famous for his portraits of George Washington and other Colonial-era notables, as having been born in a number of places, ranging from Saunderstown, which is the village in North Kingstown where the museum stands, to Narragansett, which could be a reference to the area at the time, to Newport, where his mother originated, to simply, Rhode Island.

One reference says 'near Narrow River, head of Pettasquamscutt Pond,' spelled that way, with an extra s, which also describes the area of the museum. Several references list North Kingston, spelled that way, too. But perhaps the liveliest reference is a supposed direct quote from Stuart found in an American Heritage Magazine article.

'When he was in England, Gilbert Stuart used to tell inquirers that he had been born 'six miles from Pottawoone and ten miles from Pappasquash and about four miles from Conanicut and not far from the spot where the famous battle with the war-like Pequotes was fought.' '

'I think he meant that he was born in the middle of nowhere,' said O'Connor.

Suggesting to supporters that Stuart was born anyplace else, other than in the red house, would be something of a powder keg proposal.

'His father was running the snuff mill, so that's where the family lived. It's an interesting question, isn't it,' said Harriet Powell, a museum volunteer from North Kingstown. 'How do you determine these things? There were no videos.'

So why is she still convinced?

'I read it.'

A 1941 book written by the Pettaquamscutt Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Facts and Fancies Concerning North Kingstown, Rhode Island, includes an essay written by Alice H. Durfee Greene which notes that 'Norman M. Isham, an authority on Colonial architecture,' restored the house in the 1930s after a committee was formed through the South County Art Association to save it because

it "was rapidly falling into ruin."

But it doesn't say how they knew it was his birthplace -- though it does note that Stuart was baptized in the Old Narragansett Church on Palm Sunday, 1756.

"He was certainly baptized here, there's no question about that," said Henry Beckwith, of North Kingstown, whose grandmother wrote the 1941 essay in the book, and whose family has been connected to the Old Narragansett Church, St. Paul, and the birthplace, for generations.

As to how he knows that Stuart was born there, he, too, said: "I read it."

North Kingstown historian G. Timothy Cranston said that while Stuart's birth doesn't seem to be recorded at the North Kingstown Town Hall, "That's not unusual for the time. I suspect that he was born here, because they were living here at that time period. They couldn't just hop in a car and drive to Newport."

The argument from tradition still holds, especially absent any proof otherwise. Besides, does anyone really care? Probably a few historians who would like to be accurate. It makes for a nice, interesting low-key debate, though. Should they really claim it's his birthplace without any real proof? If everyone accepts that it is, is it?

No comments: