Gilbert Stuart achieved fame as a portrait painter in both England and America. When he returned to America from England in 1793, he found himself in a homeland that was foreign to him. Politically, there was now a United States instead of thirteen separate colonies. Artistically, the fashionable style he had adopted for British and Irish sitters was highly inappropriate for Yankee merchants' forthright tastes.
Complaining about the literalness required of him in America, Stuart quipped, "In England my efforts were compared with those of Van Dyck, Titian, and other great painters—here they are compared with the works of the Almighty!" The Almighty had given Catherine Yates a bony face and an appraising character, and that is exactly what Stuart had to portray. Not wishing to waste time posing for an artist, this wife of a New York importer industriously attends to her sewing.
Yet Stuart's brilliant paint manipulation generates a verve few other artists on either side of the Atlantic could have matched. Every passage contains some technical tour de force, employing a variety of thick or thin, opaque or translucent oil paints for the fabrics, needle, thimble, wedding band, flesh, and fingernails. It is little wonder that Mrs. Richard Yates has become one of America's most famous paintings, both as an artistic masterpiece and as a visual symbol of the early republic's rectitude.