George Washington Loans His Art Yet Again

After more than half a century of delighting millions of visitors touring George Washington’s mansion, two of the first president’s landscape paintings by British artist William Winstanley, are on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Washington’s two landscapes are on view through January 2, 2014, in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art adjacent to the Kaufman Collection. Purchased by Washington in 1793, these images of the Hudson River were first displayed inside the president’s house in Philadelphia and then brought to Mount Vernon upon Washington’s retirement from the presidency.

View of the North [Hudson] River (Morning), William Winstanley, oil on canvas, circa 1793. Images Courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.[/caption]“We are thrilled to collaborate with the National Gallery of Art, to make these significant early American landscape paintings available to new audiences, outside Mount Vernon,” said Mount Vernon’s curator, Susan P. Schoelwer. “For the next few months, art lovers have an unprecedented opportunity to admire these two landscapes in a gallery setting, offering fresh perspectives on George Washington and the emergence of landscape art in America.” The first president acquired the two landscapes from William Winstanley, paying the English immigrant artist 30 guineas or $140 on April 6, 1793. In a letter written at Philadelphia three days later, Alexander Hamilton commented on seeing the canvases in the president’s house, “There are two views of the situations on Hudson’s River painted by Mr Winstanly (sic), in the drawing Room of Mrs. Washington, which have great intrinsic merit…”

With their tranquil beauty and picturesque composition, Morning and Evening were fitting images for a room in which the Washingtons received official visitors. Identified as views along the Hudson River, the luminous canvases proudly proclaimed the president’s passionate love of landscapes—both natural and cultivated—and his fervent belief that nation’s natural resources represented the key to its future greatness. 

At the time when the fine arts in America were still in their infancy, Washington established a distinctive collection.  During his term as president, he deliberately sought out landscape compositions, a marked departure from prevailing preferences for portraiture and history paintings (which were considered the most elevated genre). In addition to Winstanley’s Morning and Evening, he acquired a total of five other landscapes: two other river scenes by Winstanley; Moonlight, a romantic nocturnal scene by an unknown artist; and two views of the Potomac River, by another immigrant English artist, George Beck.

After Washington’s retirement from the Presidency, all seven of these paintings hung in his impressive “new room,” at Mount Vernon, making this space effectively the earliest gallery of landscape paintings in America. Not until nearly a generation later—with the art of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School—would landscape art emerge as a popular genre in America.

View of the North [Hudson] River (Evening), William Winstanley, oil on canvas, circa 1793. Image Courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.[/caption]Morning and Evening returned to Mount Vernon in 1940, after being passed down through several generations of Martha Washington’s descendants. Since that time they have hung over the doorways in Mount Vernon’s new room (or large dining room), together with four other landscape paintings that Washington also placed in the room. As part of a year-long restoration of the new room, both the canvases of Morning and Evening and their gilt, rococo-style frames (thought to be original) have recently been cleaned and conserved.

The paintings’ display in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art places them adjacent to the Kaufman Collection, which comprises one of the largest and most refined collections of early American furniture and decorative arts. The two landscapes Morning and Evening predate by decades the earliest American landscapes in the Gallery’s collection. Both paintings will return to Mount Vernon following the expiration of the temporary loan, where they will be reinstalled and on view for the unveiling of the restored large dining room, or what Washington referred to as his “new room,” in early 2014.

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