Johnson and His Books


Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828). Portrait of Samuel Johnson. [1783?]
Oil on canvas.

Gilbert Stuart, the American portraitist best known for the image of George Washington on the one-dollar bill, spent more than a decade in London, during which time he was introduced to Johnson. Johnson condescendingly complimented the young man from the Colonies on how well he spoke English, and asked where he had learned it. A bristling Stuart replied, "Sir, I can better tell you where I did not learn it - it was not from your dictionary." Johnson realized he had overstepped his bounds and did not take offense at the remark. A nineteenth-century inscription on this portrait suggests that it was painted from the life, during Johnson's 1783 visit to the home of William Bowles, but it is, if not a direct copy, certainly an imitation of Sir Joshua Reynolds's 1775 portrait commonly known as "Blinking Sam."