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George Washington's Mount Vernon Secures Important Piece of History at Auction

Mon, 01/28/2013

For Immediate Release
Updated February 8, 2013
Digital image available

Media Contact:
Melissa Wood
(703) 799-5203
mwood@mountvernon.org

 

George Washington's Mount Vernon Secures Important Piece of History at Auction

Rare Drawing Returns Home to Mount Vernon

 

MOUNT VERNON, VA – George Washington’s Mount Vernon succeeded in purchasing at auction an extraordinary watercolor drawing by Benjamin Henry Latrobe– an image that depicts George and Martha Washington with guests on the Mount Vernon piazza, as they overlook the Potomac River on a glorious evening before sunset. This view is unique and extremely important because it is the only known life-time image depicting the Washingtons on the piazza. This watercolor was on display in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from October 2006 through January 2007 and October 2007 through January 2008.

“Latrobe’s watercolor depiction of the Washingtons on the piazza is the closest we will ever come to having a color photograph of George Washington and his family at home in Virginia,” said Mount Vernon president & CEO, Curt Viebranz. “When we couple that with the insights the watercolor provides into the Mansion and its surrounding landscape, the information contained in this acquisition is priceless to Mount Vernon.”

Latrobe’s “A View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family” watercolor sold for $602,500 at Sotheby’s in New York on January 26, 2013. This remarkable piece of history was purchased through the generosity of an anonymous donor.  The watercolor will go on display as part of Mount Vernon’s landscape exhibition, Gardens & Groves, set to open in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center in February 2014.

Only two life-time images are known to depict George and Martha Washington at home at Mount Vernon, the other being a ca. 1792 painting of The West Front of Mount Vernon, by Edward Savage, which provides a distant view of small, stiff figures strolling on the bowling green. The Latrobe drawing offers a much more detailed and intimate view, showing George and Martha Washington enjoying refreshments, tea or coffee on the piazza with Martha’s granddaughter, Nelly Custis, and a male guest, probably Washington’s aide, Tobias Lear.

Best known as the second architect of the U.S. Capitol building, Latrobe visited Mount Vernon on July 16-17, 1796, having likely obtained an introduction to George Washington through his acquaintance with Bushrod Washington, the President’s nephew (and a future owner of Mount Vernon and future Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court).

This image was “drawn from life,” according to the artist’s signature (“Benjamin Henry Latrobe nat del July 16, 1796”). It represents a scene that occurred during Latrobe’s visit to Mount Vernon on the evening of July 16, and was described specifically in his journals: after dinner, the party removed to the piazza, where coffee was served about six o’clock, and conversation continued until dark. Mount Vernon believes that this drawing was presented to the Washingtons by the artist as a gift after his memorable visit to Mount Vernon, and that it likely remained in the house until the 1850s. It was later inherited by Lawrence Washington, son of the last family owner of the Mount Vernon estate.

Most recently, Rice University art historian Joseph Manca stressed the importance of this drawing for material culture, architectural, and social history, characterizing it as “the best visual record” of the use of the portico for refreshments and enjoying the vista over the Potomac…. “This aspect of Washington’s portico—its role as mediator of inside and outside, and as a platform for viewing the gardens and distant landscape, was among its chief functions and is an important tool in helping us understand George Washington’s eye.” (George Washington’s Eye: Landscape, Architecture, and Design at Mount Vernon, 2012, p. 82).

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Since 1860, more than 80 million visitors have made George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens the most popular historic home in America.  Through thought-provoking tours, entertaining events, and stimulating educational programs on the Estate and in classrooms across the nation, Mount Vernon strives to preserve George Washington’s place in history as “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.”  Mount Vernon is owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, America’s oldest national preservation organization, founded in 1853.  A picturesque drive to the southern end of the scenic George Washington Memorial Parkway, Mount Vernon is located just 16 miles from the nation’s capital.

Hours of operation: April-August, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; March, September, October, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; November – February, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Regular admission rates: adults, $17.00; senior citizens, $16.00; children age 6-11, when accompanied by an adult, $8.00; and children under age 5, FREE.  Admission fees, restaurant and retail proceeds, along with private donations, support the operation and restoration of Mount Vernon.