James Reeve Stuart was descended from a distinguished South Carolina clan whose members included colonial governors and Charleston aristocrats. He spent his childhood in the ancestral mansion, Rouplemonde, at Ferry Plantation, both of which were devastated during the Battle of Port Royal Ferry in 1862, destroying the family’s fortunes. He enrolled in the College of South Carolina at Columbia in 1852 before moving on to the University of Virginia in 1853; this coursework was followed by advanced classes in the department of scientific studies at Harvard University from which he graduated in 1854. During Stuart’s time in Boston, he often drew from antique models at the Boston Athenaeum and is known to have worked with the portrait artist Joseph Alexander Ames.
In 1854, Stuart returned to South Carolina, teaching English at Beaufort Academy and later attending to his family’s interests as a cotton factor in Savannah, Georgia. His continued determination to become an artist prompted an 1859 journey to Germany where he studied at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. Although Stuart is reputed to have returned home in response to the outbreak of the Civil War, he did not join up with Confederate forces until April 12, 1862 when he enlisted as a private in the Ninth South Carolina Infantry. In that capacity and later as an officer in the Corps of Engineers, he was charged with the defense of the coastline, especially the area around Port Royal, near his familial home. In the years after the war, Stuart began to work as an itinerant portrait artist with varying success in Savannah and Augusta, Georgia; Memphis, Tennessee; Iowa City, Iowa; Lexington, Kentucky; and Madison, Wisconsin. He ultimately settled in Madison in 1873, where he quickly became the most popular portraitist of the leading civic and social figures of the day, and instructed students at the University of Wisconsin. Even in his latter years, Stuart played a vital role in the Madison art scene, serving as curator for the State Historical Society and a founding member of the Studio Club.
It was during Stuart’s time in St. Louis that he painted this portrait of General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson (January 21, 1824-May 10, 1863), the Confederate martyr of the Battle of Chancellorsville and a figure of romantic adulation. It may have been executed on commission for a Southern loyalist or on speculation with hopes for its sale in the city’s bustling Pettes & Leathe gallery. Likely modeled on a widely circulated photograph taken just two weeks before the general’s death, Stuart presents Jackson in a full-length grand manner stance. The subject’s profile is flattened against the planar field even as his body is slightly contrapposto, his commanding presence accentuated by the merest suggestion of wind rippling his cape. There are no known life portraits of Jackson.