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I first saw this painting last year around the holidays when I was visiting one of my favorite furniture and home decorating stores. Believe me, the small picture posted here doesn’t do it justice as I’m sure the reproduction I saw in the store wouldn’t do the original painting justice. But there he was in my favorite store, at my favorite time of year, all jaunty and mischievous, hat slightly askew, smiling.

The store referred to the painting as The Skater. I wanted to know more about this 18th Century Bad Boy so I did what any 21st Century girl would do; I went home and Googled him. Apparently this is a 1782 oil on canvas portrait of Sir William Grant by American artist Gilbert Stuart. It now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.  it was painted while Stuart was living in London, and this was the first of his paintings to bring him fame and fortune.

I would have been happy with this information except for the fact that every description refers to it as a portrait painting. I tend to think of portrait paintings as those stuffy head-shots of unsmiling people or grumps standing beside chairs.  Sir William Grant is clearly having fun… and he’s ice skating, there just had to be more to the story. A pretty lady in a bonnet on the other side of the pond, perhaps?

Turns out there is a great story behind the painting that is every bit as delightful as the painting itself. According to author Harvey Rachlin’s  book, Scandals, Vandals and Davincis – A Gallery of Remarkable Art Tales Stuart Gilbert was extremely anxious about painting full length portraits, he felt his artistic ability was better suited to painting faces. Mind you, by the time he met Sir William Grant he was quite accomplished and had exhibited at the Royal Academy twice. He had skills but no confidence.

He knew he needed to try painting full length portraits so he accepted a commission to paint Sir William. The day Sir William was to arrive, Gilbert Stuart was a wreck. How was he going to pull it off? When Sir William arrived for his appointment remarking that the crisp cold London day was better suited to ice skating than painting portraits, the artist took his client ice skating in order to delay the inevitable. Talk about procrastination!

Soon the duo were gliding across the Serpentine River in Hyde Park. Being excellent ice skaters they attracted a lot of onlookers. ( I bet they were quite dashing too ) While Sir William was showing off his fancy blade work, Gilbert Stuart spied a crack in the ice and advised Sir William to hang on to the tail of his frock coat in order to glide to safety. I’m sure sighs of relief were heard up and down The Serpentine from the pretty ladies in bonnets:)

Of course, the two men became fast friends.

However, once they returned to the artist’s room Stuart Gilbert had to face the task at hand, he was going to have to paint a full length portrait of his new friend. Suddenly, he had a brilliant idea. Why not paint Sir William Grant as a dashing sportsman? Why not capture the fancy bladework, hat askew and charming smile? Apparently Sir William was pleased with the idea and Portrait of a Gentleman Skating was born. Along with two other Gilbert works it was exhibited at The Royal Academy in 1792 to wide acclaim.

What I like best about this story is the fact that the portrait Stuart Gilbert once felt he wasn’t capable of painting was the painting that made him famous and his self-limiting belief that he was only a “face” painter was set on its ear. ( oh gee, bad pun but I’m leaving it in 🙂 Not only did his fame expand but his belief in himself expanded as well.  Author, Harvey Rachlin says in Scandals, Vandals and DaVincis – A Gallery of Remarkable Art Tales “He was as free as the subject of his painting, liberated to twirl and spin and soar like a skater.” What a cool analogy. Kudos to Harvey Rachlin for writing those words.

I took some creative risks a couple of months ago that have lead to good things but the risk I took back then entails more risks if I’m to move forward and it’s scary.  Am I overreaching my ablilities? Have I set the bar too high? I have two small signs in my office, “Leap and the Net Will Appear” and “She Believed She Could, So She Did” and because I’m telling you the story of Gilbert Stuart today, I’m looking at those signs with new eyes.

It’s a reminder to all creative souls. Whether you’re a chef, a writer, photographer or textile artist.  Sooner or later we’re asked to take risks or we ask ourselves to take risks in order to take our craft or our work to a higher level. We ask ourselves to do things we don’t believe we can do.  Sometimes we take the risk and we fail, miserably.  If we don’t try? If we don’t try, we’ll remain “face painters” and never know know how high we can soar. And most importantly, the world will be a much poorer place for not being able to view, read, taste or touch our best creative work.

What about you? Are you letting self-limiting beliefs hold you back? Are you a face painter who could be a full portrait painter? What small step could you take right now that would move you in that direction?

Have you taken a risk, failed miserably and learned an invaluable lesson?

Can you tell me about a creative risk you took that turned out well and you “twirled and soared”? Are you twirling and soaring now? I’d love to hear from you!