Using Mount Vernon to Teach with Visual Resources

Images can communicate information about people and places that words cannot achieve on their own. By looking at 18th-century images, students can peek into the world that George Washington saw and lived in, as well as the world imagined by others who lived during this time. As a surveyor of maps, collector of artwork, and sitter for portraits, George Washington shared his life across the centuries with guests at Mount Vernon through visual sources.

Teaching with Visual Resources Tips:

Artwork and prints from the 18th century were used to communicate important information about contemporary events. Even though the colonies and the young United States had a higher rate of literacy than most of the world, images were still one of the most powerful tools to communicate information across different populations and geographic regions. Popular images were often recreated in other forms (in prints, in newspapers, on china, in needlework, et cetera). These visual sources can help students grasp the same.

Visual sources provide students with the opportunity to practice the critical skill of detail observation. One method to achieve this is to provide students only a portion of a visual source to analyze. This allows them to build information in manageable portions based on details without jumping into an analysis of the entire work. Other techniques to achieve this outcome include sustained observation of a visual source followed by its removal for a classroom discussion focused on students thinking critically to recall details and information on the source.

Historic maps provide strong visual sources layered with historic text to interpret and represent a specific time and place. Maps can help students gain an understanding of historic battles by showing distance, relative position, and landscape. For example, a Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington entry on the Siege of Boston paired with a historic map can help students identify the key locations mentioned in the article. In viewing the positions of Washington and the British army, students can better appreciate the impact of the siege in the early days of the American Revolution.

Asking students to recreate a visual source can build observation and interpretation skills. Students can recreate the pose of a portrait sitter, rebuild a still life, or transform the whole classroom into a reinterpretation of a grand historical painting.

Visual Sources at Mount Vernon:

The Washington Family, an engraving by artist Edward Savage, hangs in Mount Vernon’s dining room. This image is a rare primary source showing George Washington in his role as family man and father figure. The people in the room, the clothes they are wearing, the objects that surround them, and the backdrop all provide key evidence to help explore the relationships and interests of Washington, his wife, her grandchildren, and the enslaved individual in livery. Edward Savage painted many scenes at Mount Vernon that provide a rich body of primary source material for life at the estate.

 

The riverscapes George Washington chose as decoration in his New Room pre-dated the popularity of landscape painting that blossomed in the 19th century. These images visually showed his guests the importance he felt rivers played in the economy and prosperity of the new United States. Images of the Potomac and Hudson Rivers also hang in prominent locations in the New Room.

One of the most famous paintings of George Washington was painted by the artist Emanuel Leutze in 1851. Titled Washington Crossing the Delaware it shows Washington leading his troops across the Delaware River on December 25, 1776, before the Battle of Trenton. George Washington never saw this picture as it was painted more than 50 years after his death. As an artist and a revolutionary, Leutze used his craft to visually tie Washington’s success at the Battle of Trenton to the revolution occurring in Germany in the 19th century, a revolution he supported.

Samuel Vaughan, the famed designer from England, created a map of Mount Vernon as a gift for the Washingtons. During his visit, Vaughan created a plan and subsequent map that captured the design of the highly fashionable walking paths and gardens maintained at Mount Vernon. Since he also included all existing structures (with a key), it can be used today to examine the layout and function of the buildings, as well as the landscape design, of the Mount Vernon estate.

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