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In 1790, George Washington tasked Gouverneur Morris, the American minister to France, to purchase a variety of fashionable French objects for decorating his presidential dining table. In making selections, Morris wrote that it was imperative “to fix the taste of our Country properly,” and that grounding the new nation in the classical tradition, which has “been fashionable above two thousand years,” was the means to achieve this.These men and their contemporaries inhabited a world heavily influenced by ancient Rome and Greece. Classical references permeated their societies in everything from government to education, from drama to literature. With the archaeological discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the widespread popularity of Andrea Palladio’s designs, the realms of art and architecture also came to be dominated by classical forms and motifs. Washington himself embraced the classical spirit, and with his design for Mount Vernon’s “New Room,” took the lead in introducing neoclassicism to America. Join leading curators, historians, and art and architectural historians as they examine a wide variety of Greco-Roman styles, influences, references, and forms that early Americans admired and celebrated.The Mount Vernon Symposium is endowed by the generous support of The Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, Lucy S. Rhame, The Felicia Fund, The Sachem Foundation, and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Mauran IV.

Dates and Time


$350 for General Public
$325 for Members and Donors
Includes all Lectures, Meals, and Tours


David M. Rubenstein Leadership Hall
Fred W. Smith National Library
3600 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy.
Mount Vernon, VA 22121

Header Image: Detail of overmantel pediment and cartouche in the Mansion’s recently-restored front parlor. Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

"Fashionable above two thousand years": Classical Art and Architecture of the Founding Era, 1760-1810

Friday, May 31

All lectures take place in the David M. Rubenstein Leadership Hall within the Washington Library. The schedule is subject to change.

12:30-6:00 pm

Symposium Registration, Bookout Reception Hall

1:00 pm

Welcome and Introductions

1:15 pm

Robert Adam’s ‘picturesque’ Neo-Classicism: A personal Reinterpretation of Antiquity

Colin Thom

Robert Adam is the dominant figure in the rise of British Neo-classicism in the late eighteenth century. But his brand of classically-derived architecture differed significantly from that of his contemporaries in its disregard for dogma and its picturesque focus on novelty, variety and surprise. Like Clérisseau and Piranesi, his mentors in Rome during his grand tour of the 1750s, Adam looked to antiquity not for archaeological authenticity but for its emotive properties, to fire his creative imagination.

By examining Adam’s most successful designs of the 1760s following his return from Rome – for example at Kedleston Hall, Syon House and Osterley Park – this paper charts the transformation of such buildings into exemplars of progressive Neo-classical taste. Adam achieved this through the introduction of varied room shapes and the application of a new decorative language – both derived from classical precedents but also ideally suited to the refinements of Georgian society – creating an experience for owners and visitors that was fundamentally picturesque in its conception.

Colin Thom is a Senior Research Associate with the Survey of London at University College London's Bartlett School of Architecture and an expert on the work of the Adam brothers. He is currently editing a new book on the Adams for Historic England – Robert Adam and his Brothers: New light on Britain's leading architectural family – scheduled for publication in the spring of 2019.

2:15 pm

Viva la Virtù: The Legacy of Classical Antiquity during the Era of Lord Lansdowne, 1760–1805

Claire Lyons

To historians, William Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, is best known as the British Prime Minister who brokered peace with the American states and was honored with a portrait of George Washington by Stuart Gilbert. Though an avid collector of Old Master paintings, it was actually Lord Lansdowne’s Greek and Roman marbles that gained renown across the continent. His collection defined an era that coincided with the European rediscovery of Mediterranean sites and monuments. Social networks on both sides of the Atlantic spread news of the latest finds and encouraged a taste for Graeco-Roman style. In what has been termed an “associational world,” the classical culture that passionate amateurs fostered also heralded a decisive turn toward modern understandings of the ancient past.

Claire Lyons is Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Since joining the Museum in 2008, she has organized several exhibitions, including Grecian Taste and Roman Spirit: The Society of Dilettanti, an exploration of 18th-century Grand Tour travel and collecting by British connoisseurs of the Classical world. Trained as an archaeologist, Claire is a specialist on Greek and Etruscan art and the afterlife of antiquity.

3:15 pm


3:30 pm

Classical Architecture in Colonial Virginia through the Age of Jefferson

Calder Loth

Loth will explore the use of the classical language of architecture on buildings of Virginia’s colonial-era and the early Republican period. Rather than offer a strict chronological survey, he will select a variety of motifs and details found on Virginia works and explain their ancient origins. He will then trace how these features were recorded in Renaissance treatises and published in English pattern books used by colonial-period builders as well as by Thomas Jefferson and his disciples. The numerous examples to be cited cover both interiors and exteriors of well-known places.

Calder Loth is the retired Senior Architectural Historian of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources where he worked for 40 years and still serves part-time. He teaches architectural literacy at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in New York, Vice-President of the Center for Palladian Studies in America, and a member of the Virginia Art and Architectural Review Board. His publications include, The Virginia Landmarks Register, Virginia Landmarks of Black History, Lost Virginia. In 2008 Loth was the first recipient of the Secretary of the Interior’s Preservation Award for service to state preservation programs. In 2017 he received the Virginia AIA Honor Award for significant contributions to the understanding of Virginia’s built environment.

4:30 pm

“Nourished by the remains of Roman grandeur”: Thomas Jefferson’s Predilection for the “Antient”

Susan R. Stein

Thomas Jefferson dedicated himself to securing the future of the American experiment in self-government. He aspired to create an American identity and a lasting civilization through art and architecture at a time when the arts in America were yet to be fully realized. His knowledge of the classical world, first studied in books and later explored in France, led him to admire classically-inspired architecture and art, which he hoped would improve the taste of his countrymen and garner international respect for the young nation. He wrote that he had been “nourished by the remains of Roman grandeur.” This talk will consider the influence of the classical world on Jefferson’s aesthetics as seen principally in his designs for objects, the works of art he collected, and the decorative arts he acquired for Monticello.

Susan R. Stein, now Richard Gilder Senior Curator, Special Projects, has played a key role in the comprehensive presentation, restoration, and interpretation of Monticello since 1986. She has overseen the growth of the collection, changes to Monticello inside and out, and exhibitions, especially the landmark The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. She is now planning a traveling exhibition called Thomas Jefferson: Fashioning America that explains how Jefferson “planted the arts” in America.

5:15 pm


5:30 pm

“…A plain neat my choice”: Architectural Fashion and Identity at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Thomas A. Reinhart

It has been said many times that Mount Vernon is the autobiography that George Washington never wrote. The house is intimately connected to his self-identity, and Washington’s architectural choices manifested his attempts to navigate a world that changed radically over the course of his life. During his nearly 50-year occupancy of the plantation, Washington altered the Mansion either to help achieve a desired elevation of his status or to present the proprieties of a recently-achieved status. Changes made to the house in the decades before the Revolution created a dwelling suited to a rising member of the Anglo-American gentry, utilizing Palladian designs from architectural pattern books published in London. After the Revolution, he again looked toward London, adopting neoclassical idiom to create a space that would present to the world his new self-identity and his vision for a national identity.

Thomas A. Reinhart is the Director of Architecture at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He has varied teaching experience and his research interests include the architectural expression of Catholicism in Maryland from 1634 to 1850 and the transmission of architectural ideas through the British Atlantic world in the 18th century. His work at Mount Vernon includes the restoration of the neoclassical New Room, the iconic cupola, and the recently completed restoration of the 1760s front parlor.

6:45 pm

Piazza Reception and Mansion Open House with Curators

7:30 pm

Dinner, Ford Orientation Center

Saturday, June 1

7:30 am

Continental Breakfast, Bookout Reception Hall

9:00 am

Welcome and Introductions

9:15 am

Robert Mills: Pragmatic Classicist

John M. Bryan

Robert Mills’ initial proposals for major public works were typically modified by practical and financial constraints. He drew inspiration from historical styles, but always aimed to create buildings and monuments that might create, as he wrote, “classic ground here.” We can trace threads, like string through pearls, running through his work. The influence of Jefferson, Latrobe, Bulfinch and the Revival Styles is often evident, as is a lifelong interest in ideas that might impact architecture and infrastructure. In addition to the familiar, famous work in Washington,  he designed or influenced some 200 buildings from Massachusetts to New Orleans. Mills’ pragmatic classicism was a formative influence in the new republic

John M. Bryan has studied the career of Robert Mills for almost half a century. As an associate editor of the Smithsonian’s Papers of Robert Mills project, he participated in the collection of Mills’ manuscripts, and as curator for the American Institute of Architects, he organized a national, touring exhibition of Mills’ drawings. His focus on Mills culminated in an award-winning biography, America’s First Architect, Robert Mills (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001). Bryan taught art and architectural history at the University of South Carolina (1971-2005).

10:00 am

Villas Worthy of the Ancients: Early Eighteenth-Century English Country Houses, Architectural Design and the Display of Art

Jeremy Musson

This lecture reassesses the significance of Chiswick, Houghton and Holkham as buildings inspired by the example of the villas of Palladio and explores how their design was dominated, even defined, by the display and arrangement of important art collections. These great country houses were the product of a highly developed culture of connoisseurship and interlinked circles of friendship and patronage, informed by the Grand Tour. This culture and these networks shaped individual patrons' attitudes to architecture, decoration and display, and helped forge a new identity for the Georgian social elite.

Jeremy Musson is an architectural historian specializing in the history of the British country house. Architectural editor of Country Life from 1997 to 2008 and presenter of BBC2’s The Curious House Guest TV series in 2007-2009, he is now an independent specialist consultant advising on historic buildings from Morris’s Red House to Wren's St Paul’s Cathedral. An author of many books (including Country House Interiors, 2011, The Drawing Room, 2014, and Robert Adam, 2017) and co-editor and co-author with David Cannadine of The Country House: Past, Present and Future, 2018. Musson also lectures, supervises and examines on Master’s programs for the Universities of Cambridge and Buckingham.

10:45 am


11:15 am

The Strategic Use of Classical Imagery in Paintings by Charles and Rembrandt Peale, 1769-1824

Carol Eaton Soltis

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) and his son Rembrandt (1778-1860) strategically employed classical forms and literary references in their portraiture, history paintings and public art. They used them to express political or patriotic ideals and to create and commemorate American heroes. But, they also used them to suggest erudition or artistic sophistication and, on occasion, to act as cover for risqué subject matter. While Charles Willson Peale assimilated a classical vocabulary during his studies in London, specifically under the guidance of his mentor, Benjamin West, Rembrandt’s classical vocabulary was aligned with his residence in France between 1808 and 1810 where examples of Napoleonic Classicism reigned supreme. But, for Rembrandt, Classicism manifested itself not only in the forms and references he employed, it also shaped his mature painting style.

Carol Eaton Soltis is Project Associate Curator in the Department of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her extensive writings on the Peales include her 2018 The Art of the Peales: Adaptations & Innovations, an in-depth catalogue of PMA’s unparalleled Peale Collection, which contains oil portraits, watercolor on ivory miniatures, still life pictures, landscapes, drawings, and prints by eleven different Peale artists over three generations.

12:00 pm

Lunch, Founders' Terrace

1:30 pm

“The Boast and Pride of North America”: Antonio Canova’s George Washington

Xavier Salomon, Keynote Speaker

At the end of 1815, the General Assembly of North Carolina decided to commission a full-length sculpture of George Washington, to be placed in the State House of Raleigh. The marble, the first and only work created by Antonio Canova for America, was unveiled to great acclaim in 1821. Tragically, only a decade later, a fire destroyed the State House reducing the statue to just a few charred fragments. This paper examines the ill-fated history of the artist’s lost masterpiece.

Xavier Salomon is the Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at The Frick Collection, New York. He studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and has worked at Dulwich Picture Gallery and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has curated a number of exhibitions, most recently Canova’s George Washington at the Frick Collection (2018).

2:30 pm


3:00 pm

Why Did the Founders Think Ancient Rome Was So Great?

Caroline Winterer

Like other Founding Fathers, George Washington revered ancient Rome. Even today signs of their enthusiasm are everywhere apparent in the United States, from the name of the “Senate,” to the layout of Washington, D.C., to Mount Vernon itself, which is a monument to the international style of architecture and interior decoration known as Neoclassicism. This presentation will show why the Roman republic and empire attracted the Founders like a magnet, providing a storehouse of models (and anti-models) for everything from politics to slavery to art and architecture.

Caroline Winterer is Anthony P. Meier Family Professor in the Department of History at Stanford University, and Director of the Stanford Humanities Center. She specializes in the ideas and art of the Founding Era. Her most recent book is American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (Yale, 2016).

3:45 pm


4:00 pm

Emerging Scholars Panel

The Adam Style in the Founding Era: Charles Bulfinch & American (Neo)Classicism, c.1785-1810
Sydney Ayers, The University of Edinburgh
Sydney Ayers is a PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh, funded by the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain (SAHGB). Sydney’s doctoral research examines the reception, reputation, and afterlife of eighteenth-century British architect Robert Adam. 

Before the Greek Revival: Vestiges of Neoclassical New Orleans
Philippe Halbert, Yale University
Philippe Halbert is a PhD candidate in History of Art at Yale University. His research addresses the intersections of art, identity, and material culture in the Atlantic world, with particular focus on areas of French and Spanish settlement in North America and the Caribbean.

Transatlantic Temples: The Architecture of George Hadfield in the Early Republic
Danielle S. Willkens, Auburn University
Danielle S. Willkens, Associate AIA, is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Auburn University’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture. Her research into the Transatlantic Design Network has been supported by the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation, the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society, and the International Center for Jefferson Studies.

6:00 pm

Reception, Mount Vernon Wharf

7:00 pm

Riverside Dining, Mount Vernon Wharf

Sunday, June 2

9:00 am

Continental Breakfast, Bookout Reception Hall

9:30 am

'Wealth and ambition & taste': Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s Classical Splendor in Early 19th century Philadelphia

Alexandra Kirtley

In 1808, British-born architect B. Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) completed the building and furnishing of a house he designed in Philadelphia for merchant William Waln and his sophisticated wife Mary Wilcocks Waln. The centerpiece of Latrobe’s floor plan were two adjoining drawing rooms that overlooked the south facing garden, which was also his design. Integral to his plan for the spaces was their decoration, and Latrobe wrote to the ornamental painter, “I have resolved to decorate his drawing room…with Flaxman’s Iliad or Odyssey in flat Etruscan color...”  What followed was a furnishing campaign that embraced classical art and ornament in a way that had never happened before in North America: painted walls with decoration that matched dramatic painted and gilded Klismos furniture and imitated ancient Greek and Roman architecture and interiors. Its success and impact were immediate: the following year, Dolley Madison commissioned Latrobe to execute the same elegance at the President’s House in Washington, DC. The furniture was the focus of an acclaimed 2016 exhibition and accompanying catalogue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and this presentation will consider the artistic impetuses that lead to the Walns’ furniture commission, Latrobe’s mission to classicize the United States with “aristocratic wishes and republican virtues,” the artisans who made the furniture, and its profound impact on American art.

Alexandra Kirtley graduated from Hamilton College and the University of Delaware-Winterthur Program in Early American Culture before joining the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s American Art curatorial team in 2001. Mrs. Kirtley has orchestrated the acquisition of significant works of art through gift and purchase, presents and publishes her research frequently, and has curated several loan exhibitions, most recently the groundbreaking “Classical Splendor: Painted Furniture for a Grand Philadelphia House.”

10:15 am

Classicism, Community, and Competition: Architectural Connections around the New Federal City

Marcia Miller

The building of the new Federal City showcased the emerging neoclassical ideals of architecture in both public and private buildings. Three surviving houses built over a period of 17 years—the Octagon (1802), Riversdale (1807), and Tudor Place (1816)—a townhouse and two country houses, all are striking examples of the new architectural ideals. The Octagon and Tudor Place were designed by Dr. William Thornton, a self-trained architect who also won the design competition for the Capitol building. English-trained architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe submitted plans for both the Octagon and Riversdale but won neither commission, although he took over completion of the Capitol.  William Lovering, a builder and architect, served as overseer for the construction of both the Octagon and Riversdale. 

By examining the design and construction process of these three houses, this presentation will explore the intimate connections and fierce competitions among the designers, builders, and sophisticated owners of the most refined housing built around the new city.

Marcia Miller is chief of the field research office of the Maryland Historical Trust, where she oversees the documentation of Maryland’s historic and cultural resources.  She has participated in numerous field surveys and historic structure investigations, such as the ongoing restoration of the James Brice House. She is co-editor of Architecture in Annapolis. Much of Ms. Miller’s research has focused on the complex interplay of designers, clients, and artisans in 18th-century Maryland.

11:00 am



George Washington, Classical Hero: Ephemeral and Enduring

Susan P. Schoelwer

In the absence of an official, authorized likeness (comparable to the state portraits of other heads of state), 18th-century artists devised three distinct tropes for representing George Washington: the historic military commander, the dignified civilian statesman, and the timeless classical hero. Despite the association of the antique with enduring values, visual references to Washington as classical hero emerged first in the most fleeting, popular media, such as almanacs, banners, and transparencies, and only later more enduring media, such as oil, stone, and metals. Dr. Schoelwer will explore the surprising variety of classical Georges, from lost street art to monumental public statuary, fragile needlework to factory-made ceramics, sheet music to numismatics.

Susan P. Schoelwer is the Executive Director for Historic Preservation and Collections and Robert H. Smith Senior Curator at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Since coming to Mount Vernon in 2010, she has directed the refurnishing and reinterpretation of Mansion rooms and creation of museum exhibitions, including the current, award-winning special exhibition, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. She currently serves as president of the Decorative Arts Society, Inc. and has written and lectured extensively on the Washingtons and Mount Vernon, American art and decorative arts, needlework, and women’s history.


12:15 pm

Symposium Adjourns