Stuart lived in Saunderstown until he was seven. At that time, business difficulties forced the family to sell their interest in the snuff mill and move Newport, Rhode Island. It was there that Stuart began to exhibit his skill as an artist. One of his first paintings, Dr. Hunter's Spaniels, is on display in the Southeast Parlor of the Newport Preservation Society's Hunter House.
While in Newport, Stuart began to receive instruction from Cosmo Alexander - a visitor to the colonies doing portraits of local residents. In 1771, Stuart accompanied Alexander to England, returning to Newport after the older artist's death. Stuart returned to England again in 1775. There, he worked for five years (1777-1782) as assistant to American painter Benjamin West. The success of The Skater in 1782 enabled Stuart to establish his own business as a portrait painter. In 1786, Stuart married Charlotte Coats. The following year, the couple moved to Dublin where Stuart painted portraits for over five years.
Stuart returned to America in 1793 as an acknowledged master. He combined a talent for recording the likeness of the subject with the ability to include their personality or character in the portrait. His 1795 portrait of George Washington (the Vaughn portrait) established him in America and led to many other commissions. This is the image of Washington that appears on the one-dollar bill.
In 1796, Stuart was commissioned to paint another portrait of President Washington (the Athenaeum portraits). Stuart intentionally left the original unfinished, using it a model for numerous copies. One copy of this portrait hangs in the Library in the White House.
Stuart's third painting of Washington was a full-length portrait (Lansdown portraits) also completed on 1796. This portrait depicts Washington as he appeared before Congress in Philadelphia. A copy of this portrait hangs in the East Room of the White House. Another copy hangs in the State Reception Room of the Rhode Island State House.
During his lifetime, Stuart painted over a thousand portraits including Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe as well as many other socially prominent men and woman. Stuart lived in Philadelphia, New York, Washington before finally settling in Boston. He died on July 9, 1828 at the age of 72 and is buried with many other influential Americans in the Old South Burial Ground in Boston.
Today, Stuart's portraits are seen in museums and galleries around the world including the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Tate Gallery and The National Portrait Gallery in London.