Bishop Jean-Louis Anne Magdelaine Lefebvre de Cheverus
Gilbert Stuart, American, 1755–1828
92.07 x 72.39 cm (36 1/4 x 28 1/2 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Prudence S. and William M. Crozier, Jr. Gallery (Gallery 121)
Stuart painted this portrait of the popular French-born bishop in Boston shortly before the clergyman was recalled to his homeland in the fall of 1823. Cheverus had arrived in America in 1796 from England after having fled France in 1792 as revolution and anticlerical sentiment swept the country. In America he traveled throughout New England as a missionary to the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians in Maine and also tended to Catholic families in rural areas. In Boston he played a critical role in diminishing anti-Catholic attitudes and fostering religious tolerance; he was admired for his charity, his quiet eloquence, and his contributions to the city’s intellectual life. Cheverus aided the sick during the yellow fever epidemic of 1798, and he developed strong ties to the Boston Athenaeum, the library to which he left his own collection of books. Numbered among his friends were many leading Boston Protestants including Josiah Quincy link, John Adams link, and Harrison Gray Otis. Between 1799 and 1803 Cheverus supervised the construction of the Charles Bulfinch–designed Church of the Holy Cross on Franklin Street, Boston’s first Roman Catholic church, which was paid for by both Catholic and Protestant subscribers—a testament to Cheverus’s appeal across faiths (it was demolished in 1862). The church was made a cathedral in 1808 and in 1810 Cheverus was ordained the first Roman Catholic bishop of Boston.
News of Cheverus’s recall to France was met with dismay by Bostonians—a group of prominent citizens even petitioned for a retraction. When his reassignment could not be averted, tributes to the bishop ensued in the months leading up to his departure. The commission for this Stuart portrait came from Mary Babcock Gore link, the wife of wealthy merchant John Gore, whose portrait Stuart had painted almost a decade earlier. She also commissioned a portrait of Reverend John S. Gardiner (location unknown), rector of her own congregation at Trinity Church, thus commemorating in similar compositions the leading spiritual leaders in the city. The portrait of Cheverus remained in the Gore family and was given to the MFA by Mary Babcock Gore’s granddaughter in 1921.
Cheverus is seated in an Empire-style chair and wears a white rochet (gownlike undergarment) under a gray-blue mozzetta (cape) with a matching chevron collar—non sacramental dress. A gold pectoral cross, an emblem of his office, hangs from the collar. Cheverus’s left hand marks a page in a book, while his right hand, bearing an episcopal ring, pauses in midair, two fingers extended, offering a gesture of benediction. Stuart depicts Cheverus as if interrupted in his reading, readily identifiable as a man of the cloth but approachable. Stuart unifies his composition with a subtle palette of subdued primary colors—burnished golds in the curtain, cross, and edge of the book; blues in the garments and sky; and pinks and reds in the clouds, skin tones, and trim of the cape. Stuart’s light touch captured perfectly the sensitivity of a man known for his gentleness and intelligence.
Karen E. Quinn