A loving grandfather who indulged his step-granddaughter with a dazzling new paint set... An artistic young woman who skillfully colored the illustrations of plants and animals in a natural history book...

These may not be the images of the Washington family that immediately spring to mind, considering the day-to-day tasks required to keep the estate running smoothly. However, these objects in the Mount Vernon collection paint a clear picture of how the Washingtons spent their leisure time.

Paint box: Gift: Jess and Grace Pavey Fund, 2013 (W-5326/A-U); Journal: Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (photographs by Mark Finkenstaedt)Young Nelly Custis, George Washington’s step-granddaughter, liked to show off her artistic side by painting and drawing. Washington encouraged her creative pursuits by providing her with drawing lessons with professional artists. Just before he left Philadelphia at the end of the presidency, he gave her a very special gift: a top-of-the-line mahogany paint box with an impressive array of 40 colors. Such a gift did not come with a small price tag. According to household records, on February 7, 1797, George Washington paid a total of $30 for "2 pleasures of Memory [a volume of poetry]-& a box of paints for Mrs. W. and Miss C.," referring to his wife Martha and her granddaughter, Nelly.

Preserved in extraordinary condition, this watercolor set was manufactured by Thomas Reeves & Sons, an artist supply company based in London. Nelly's model was the most elaborate offered by the firm, featuring 40 cakes of paint, ivory and ceramic mixing palettes, an ivory brush holder, and glass bowls, all nested in compartments within a wooden case adorned with inlaid decoration.

A highlight of Mount Vernon's collection, this paint box tells important stories about Nelly Custis's education and artistic talents-- and more broadly about elite women's education in the new Republic. Like many well-bred young ladies of her time, Nelly was privileged to take drawing and painting lessons. Her artistic and musical accomplishments were much admired by acquaintances and visitors to Mount Vernon. Polish nobleman Julian Niemcewicz, for example, wrote that Nelly "draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe." 

Excerpt from Journal of a Voyage to South Wales (Wikimedia)Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, a 1790 publication, includes 65 engraved plates depicting the animal and plant life of the British colony located in present-day Australia -- embellished by Nelly herself. The book is now in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The title page bears the inscription, "The Prints in this Book were colour 'd by Eleanor Parke Lewis in the year 1801." The charming and delicately-painted images of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects are a testament to Nelly's artistic skill.

Curatorial Staff, 2016

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