The Gilbert Stuart Snuff Mill Museum

Providence, Rhode Island

He is probably the least known artist you see every day. Few people know his name, but Gilbert Stuart created one of the most recognizable pieces of art known around the world.

Gilbert Stuart was a premier portrait painter of the late 1700s, born just outside Providence Rhode Island. He is known worldwide for his paintings of George Washington, with an etching of one used on the U.S. dollar bill.


The famous etching was created from this unfinished portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart.


Talent at a Young Age

Although his father was a working man running a snuff mill in Rhode Island, Gilbert did not follow in his father’s line of work. He showed remarkable skill as a painter at a young age, and by age 12 was studying under a local Scottish painter, Cosmo Alexander.

He left for Scotland to continue his studies returning two years later. He left the US again in 1775, this time heading to study in England and did not return until 1793 – entirely missing out on the American Revolutionary War. He studied in England under the artist Benjamin West and quickly earned a reputation as one of England’s finest portrait painters. He earned a good living painting, but was not equally as good with his finances. He was always on the brink of ending up in debtor’s prison there until he returned to the United States and set up a studio. He soon was in high demand, painting many of our founding fathers and the elite of the time including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Dolly Madison, Horatio Gates, James Madison, James Monroe, and Daniel Webster.


Gilbert painted “Dr. Hunter’s Dogs” at the age of 12

He had a reputation as being entertaining and easy to work with during the long sitting sessions. In order to get the naturally reticent George Washington to become more animated, he skillfully brought the conversation around to horses, which was an animating topic with the former President and helped him feel more at ease. Gilbert’s popularity kept him busy, producing over 1,000 portraits during his career. He trained his daughters to help him duplicate his paintings to meet the high demand for copies. His daughter Jane went on to become a popular artist in her own right, carrying on with his realistic portraiture style.


John Adams


Dolly Madison


George Washington

Snuff Mill near Providence Rhode Island

Gilbert Stuart’s Birthplace - the Snuff Mill (photo credit Flikr/PeterRintels)

His childhood home on the outskirts of Providence sits in a picturesque setting – a lovely brick red colonial snuff mill, with a mill pond and meandering stream all sitting on 23 acres. The family lived here for the first seven years of Gilbert’s life – and what a beautiful place to begin life! The home was restored in the 1930s and now is filled with antique period furnishings and serves as a backdrop to some examples of Gilbert’s artworks. There is also a modern art gallery space attached to the Welcome Center which contains many works by local and historically renowned artists well worth a visit in their own right.

What is a snuff mill?

A snuff mill used the power of water to turn and grind locally produced tobacco into fine powder, which was a popular smokeless tobacco people could sniff. They kept snuff in little boxes that are collected today called snuff boxes. A pinch of snuff was put on the back of the hand and sniffed to inhale giving a quick hit of nicotine. Originally from the indigenous peoples of Brazil, the Spanish imported the habit to Europe, and it soon spread to France, the Dutch, England, and eventually to the colonies in America. Used primarily by the aristocrats, it was claimed to help with headaches and the flavored varieties possibly helped mask unpleasant odors. Its benefits hardly outweighed the detriments though, and soon concerns of nasal cancer were discussed. In the late 1700s, anything to do with the British upper class was less popular, and the use of snuff in the United States dwindled.

The snuff mill is a hidden gem worth the visit. Whether you are a naturalist and want to visit for the idyllic scenery, or a history buff and want to learn more about a snuff mill, or are an artist at heart and want to see where this most famous, yet little known artist grew up, a trip to the Stuart Snuff Mill is an American treasure not to be missed.

You can visit Providence, Rhode Island on a small ship cruises including:
The New England Islands Cruise

Read more about the Gilbert Stuart Snuff Mill Museum on their website.

Photos courtesy the Gilbert Stuart Museum

New England Islands

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