In the 1850s the campaign of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association to acquire and preserve George Washington's private residence spurred renewed interest in the Washington family. Artists, historians, and Washington enthusiasts made the pilgrimage to Mount Vernon following Washington's death. However, the official opening of Mount Vernon to the public transformed the once private Washington residence into a destination for Americans eager to connect with its history.
Thomas Prichard Rossiter was one such American who made the pilgrimage to Mount Vernon. Rossiter was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1818, and practiced there as a young artist before studying in London, Paris, and Rome. In 1857, he began several large historical compositions, including Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon, Washington and His First Cabinet, and George Washington and Family. Rossiter visited Mount Vernon in June of 1858 and soon after published a lengthy article detailing Washington's life and the state of Mount Vernon.
Upon visiting Mount Vernon, Rossiter wrote of his sadness to see the deteriorated state of the buildings and grounds. The young artist did, however, have hope in the newly formed Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Rossiter urged the restoration of the mansion and furniture to the condition that Washington left them. Although Rossiter reported sitting under a tree while sketching the exterior of the mansion, he did not mention recording the interior of Washington's residence. Perhaps the artist was overwhelmed with the jostling crowds he described in the house or was limited because only a hall and two empty rooms were on view to the public. Rossiter did not relay if the study was one of the two rooms that he viewed. However it does appear that many elements in George Washington and Family were derived from another source, that of author and historian Benson J. Lossing.
George Washington and Family is staged in Washington's study, his most private of spaces. The east wall is lined with Washington's books in glass-fronted shelves that remain preserved at Mount Vernon to this day. The background of the painting is the north wall of the study, with elements of architecture and decoration drawn directly from Lossing's descriptions of Mount Vernon. Rossiter also clearly modeled the mantelpiece decorations on Lossing's illustration of Chinese export porcelain and argand lamps placed in the New Room.
The middle and foreground of the painting are dominated by the artist's renderings of George and Martha Washington, Martha's granddaughters Eleanor and Elizabeth Custis, and an African-American slave. George Washington reclines with one hand marking his place in a book while the other hand rests upon a writing desk. The quiet observer and attendant to the scene is a female slave as she carries into the room a pewter pitcher of liquid refreshment. Rossiter integrates the myriad objects and characters described and depicted by Lossing into a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing composition. While many of the early depictions of Washington focused on his role as a military leader and statesman, this painting revealed his familial role.
Lossing, Benson J. Mount Vernon and its Associations, Historical, Biographical and Pictoral. New York: W.A. Townsend & Company, 1859.
Rossiter, Thomas P. A Description of the Picture of the Home of Washington After the War. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1859.
Rossiter, Thomas P. "Mount Vernon, Past and Present: What Shall Be Its Destiny?" The Crayon 5, Vol. 9, September 1858: 243-53.