In 1775, Gilbert Stuart set sail for London where Benjamin West welcomed the destitute young man into his home. The Skater marks the end of his five-year apprenticeship to West. Stuart's first effort at full-length portraiture, its originality brought the artist so much notice at the 1782 Royal Academy exhibition that he soon set up his own studio.
The unorthodox motif of skating -- indeed, any presentation of vigorous movement at all -- had absolutely no precedent in Britain's "Grand Manner" tradition of life-size society portraiture. The painter recalled that when William Grant, from Congalton near Edinburgh, arrived to have his picture painted, the Scottish sitter remarked that, "on account of the excessive coldness of the weather . . . the day was better suited for skating than sitting for one's portrait." Thus artist and sitter went off to skate on the Serpentine River in Hyde Park. When he returned to West's studio with Grant, Stuart conceived the idea of portraying his subject on ice skates in a winter landscape, with the twin towers of Westminster Abbey far in the distance.
In this innovative design, Grant glides effortlessly forward with arms crossed over his chest in typical eighteenth-century skating form. Except for his folded arms, the figure's stance derives from an ancient Roman statue, the Apollo Belvedere, a cast of which stood in the corner of West's studio.