In 1793-94, Gilbert Stuart, best known today for his unfinished likeness of George Washington, painted a portrait of a promising politician. There is something unconventional about this particular canvass: age and authority do not quite coincide. The perfectly proportioned face, its flawless skin rose-tinted and glowing, suggests a man in his early twenties. Only the receding hairline hints that he might be older. One other pronounced feature stands out: the large hazel eyes, with coal black pupils, that gaze intently from the canvas.
The man in the portrait is thirty-seven-year-old Senator Aaron Burr of New York. Two years earlier, he had come into office by defeating Philip Schuyler, a powerful, wealthy landholder twenty-three years his senior. Schuyler was deeply resentful about the unexpected turn of events. These two men could not have been more unalike: the elder was hulking and unapproachable, his victorious opponent not just younger but elegant and engaging.
Appearances mattered in the politically tumultuous 1790's, and Burr's decision to commission the portrait marked more than the entry of a newcomer into the republican ruling class. Stuart's carefully compose image of Burr announced a new democratic ethos: none of the outward emblems of social status appears in the portrait. The youthful Burr is without a wig. His dress is remarkably plain: no lacy frills, no gold buttons, no richly dyed satin cloth. Stuart tellingly observed that his American clients demanded accurate and realistic representations of themselves - none of the costumes, insignia of office, and "Grand Manner" setting associated with British portraiture.
-Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr