The 2015 Mount Vernon Decorative Arts Symposium takes its inspiration from Martha Washington, the lady of the house and mistress of Mount Vernon plantation. Drawing together a distinguished roster of curators, historians, and art historians, the symposium will focus unprecedented attention on the role of women in the decorative arts -- as creators, patrons, designers, keepers, antiquarians, preservationists, and collectors.

The Mount Vernon Decorative Arts Symposium is endowed by the generous support of The Felicia Fund and The Sachem Foundation, along with a valued gift from Mr. and Mrs. Frank Mauran IV.

Date and Time




Rubenstein Leadership Hall, Fred W. Smith National Library 3600 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Virginia 22121

Day 3

Day 2

Day 1

The Lady of the House: Women and American Decorative Arts

Charles Willson Peale’s 1772 miniature portrait of Martha Washington.Martha Washington epitomizes the current position of women in the study of American decorative arts – overshadowed by a more famous spouse, she remains an elusive figure. Many other women of considerable accomplishment and interest continue to be overshadowed by fathers and brothers, husbands and son, leading to an incomplete understanding of America’s cultural past. At many historic house sites, for example, there is often more information presented on female servants (free and enslaved) than there is on the mistress of the house.

As interest in women’s history and family history has grown in recent decades, rich and revealing individual studies have been conducted. Surprisingly, there has not emerged a continuing forum for bringing together researchers and audiences interested in discussing the intersection of women and the American decorative arts in a domestic setting. Mount Vernon’s decorative arts symposium fills this vacuum.

Friday, May 29, 2015

1:00-6:00 pm                          Symposium Registration

Participants are invited to register in the Library’s Bookout Reception Hall.

 1:30 pm  Welcome and Introductions
1:45-2:45 pm Betsy Ross: The Life Behind the Legend
Marla Miller


Both iconic and controversial, Betsy Ross is one of the best known figures of the American Revolutionary era, yet also the most misunderstood. The story of Ross and the making of the first American flag was introduced to public audiences by her grandson William Canby in 1870, at a talk before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The legend that grew cast Betsy as a simple seamstress honored by chance to contribute to the independence movement. But the real Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole (1752-1836) would not have recognized the Betsy Ross of popular historical imagination. As an upholsterer, she labored for more than five decades, crafting chair cases and covers, curtains and blinds, thousands of yards of fringe and tassels, and other fabric furnishings for wealthy clients, including the Washingtons. As one of the early flagmakers of the rebellion, she became among the most important professionals of the new republic. Contrasting the actual life of Betsy Ross with the legend that shrouds it, Professor Miller recovers the fascinating experiences of this early American craftswomen and her large artisanal family.

Marla Miller is the Director of the University of Massachusetts’s Public History program. Her primary research interest is U.S. women's work before industrialization, and she teaches courses in American Material Culture, and Museum and Historic Site Interpretation. She is the author of landmark studies of two notable American female artisans: Betsy Ross and the Making of America (2012) and The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (2006), which examines the life and work of Massachusetts seamstress Rebecca Dickinson. She consults with a wide variety of museums and historic sites and recently co-authored a prize-winning study, Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service.

2:45-3:45 pm Martha Washington’s Mount Vernon: Hidden in Plain Sight
Susan P. Schoelwer

An English-porcelain song bird that once graced the Washingtons’ dinner table.Martha Dandridge Custis Washington has long been recognized for the gracious hospitality she dispensed at Mount Vernon. In contrast, her contributions to the creation and furnishing of the Washington’s household have received little attention, in large part because the vast bulk of documentation on Mount Vernon is preserved in the papers of her larger-than-life-sized husband. Careful sleuthing through George Washington’s voluminous correspondence and financial records brings to light what has been previously overlooked: countless clues that enables Mount Vernon’s senior curator to shed new light on Mrs. Washington’s varied and influential activities as producer, consumer, patron, and preservationist of the decorative and fine arts.

Susan P. Schoelwer serves as the Robert H. Smith Senior Curator at Mount Vernon, where she has directed the “New Room” refurnishing, the greenhouse slave quarter reinstallation, and a variety of special exhibitions. She holds a PhD from Yale, an MA from the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, and has written and lectured extensively on American decorative and fine arts and women’s history. She received the Connecticut Book Prize for Non-Fiction for Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art, and Family 1740-1840.

3:45-4:00 pm Break
4:00-5:00 pm Dream House: The Presence of the Homemaker in the Evolution of the White House
Ulysses Grant Dietz

Julia Grant redecorated the Blue Room inside the White House in 1869.

Beginning with Sarah Polk in 1847, the role of the First Lady as mistress of the White House began to take shape in a way familiar to us today. Mrs. Polk herself was the first First Lady to truly take charge of the decoration of the state rooms, and to set the aesthetic tone for her husband’s residence. Based on his 2009 book, Dream House: The White House as an American Home, co-authored with Sam Watters, Ulysses Grant Dietz will demonstrate how, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the White House was treated not as a shrine or a nobleman’s palace, but as a private home in which the First Lady was the homemaker. There was no “official” look for the White House, and each First Lady was allowed to fashion her personal dream house to suit her own vision and taste. Only with the dawn of the twentieth century did the White House begin to transform into something more public, forever changing the way its interiors would be approached.

Ulysses Grant Dietz has been the curator of Decorative Arts at The Newark Museum since 1980. He received his BA from Yale and his MA from the University of Delaware’s Winterthur Program. The curator of over 100 exhibitions during his tenure, Mr. Dietz is particularly proud of his work on The Newark Museum’s 1885 Ballantine House. In 1997 Mr. Dietz was the project director for The Glitter & The Gold: Fashioning America’s Jewelry, the first-ever exhibition and book on Newark’s once-vast jewelry industry. Mr. Dietz has published numerous articles on decorative arts, as well as books on the Museum’s Studio Pottery, Art Pottery and nineteenth-century furniture collections.

5:00-6:30 pm Reception, book signings, Founders' Terrace
6:30-9:00 pm Garden strolling, tours, and barbecue at Gunston Hall (complimentary bus service provided)

George Mason’s Gunston Hall, Mason’s Neck, Virginia

The Dames and Preservation: Properties, Projects, Collections
Brantley Carter Bolling Knowles

Brantley Carter Bolling Knowles, a native Virginian, has been involved in historic preservation and the decorative arts for nearly four decades. She is the current Virginia Regent of Gunston Hall, and is a trustee of the Historic Prestwould Foundation (VA). She is past president of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA) in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a former chairman of all NSCDA Properties nationwide, and a former trustee of Preservation Virginia (APVA).

Saturday, May 30, 2015

8:00-9:00 am                          Continental breakfast, Bookout Reception Hall
9:00-10:00 am Ireland: A Crossroad for Artistic Women, 1700 to 1840
Christopher Monkhouse

Mary Delany created this flower "Mosaick", using cut paper and watercolour, after 1771.

In the course of doing research and assembling loans for the exhibition Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design: 1690-1840, (17 March to 7 June 2015) at the Art Institute of Chicago, we uncovered a number of significant contributions by Irish women in the arts. The female thread which runs throughout the show couldn't start stronger than with Henrietta de Beaulieu Dering Johnston, a French Huguenot portraitist in pastels working in Dublin around 1700, before departing with her husband for Charleston S.C. in 1708. In effect she becomes Ireland's and America's first woman artist and also first pastelist. She is followed by Susanna Drury, whose detailed views of the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim in 1739 helped transform that geological phenomenon into one of Ireland's foremost tourist attractions. Through two English women - the Lennox Sisters - marrying into the Irish aristocracy and gentry and thereby making their new homes at Carton and Castletown in Country Kildare, they extended the artistic reach of women through landscaping and the creation of print rooms and shell cottages. Then there are the remarkable floral paper mosaics of Mary Delany, not to mention the quilts of Eliza Bennis, made in both Waterford and Philadelphia. The aforementioned examples are just a sampling of contributions made by Ireland's artistic women during the long 18th century, as will be revealed in "Ireland: A Crossroad for Artistic Women, 1700 to 1840".

Christopher Monkhouse is the Eloise W. Martin Curator and Chair of the Department of European Decorative Arts at The Art Institute of Chicago. He majored in art history at the University of Pennsylvania where he was awarded a Thouron British American Fellowship to study at the Courtald Institute of Art in London, where he received his MA for a thesis on British railway hotels. He has served as curator of European and American Decorative Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design; as the founding curator of the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art; and as the James Ford Bell Curator of Architecture, Design, Decorative Arts, Craft and Sculpture.

10:00-10:15 am Break
10:15-11:00 am From Susanna to Martha: The (First) First Lady's Jewelry and the Story of Susanna Passavant, Retailer
Louisa E. Brouwer

In 1759, George Washington placed an order for garnet jewelry from the London-based retailer, Susanna Passavant. Among the fifteen items sent to Mount Vernon for Martha Washington was a “Garnet Necklace set in Roses,” its modest but fashionable style a particular favorite of the future First Lady. Remarkably, this object still resides at Mount Vernon today, its unique survival a testament to the lore of Washingtonia and the success of its retailer. A Huguenot jeweler by birth and trade, Susanna Passavant created one of the most successful eighteenth-century luxury goods shops in the City of London. Named The Plume of Feathers, Passavant’s business legacy speaks not only to the agency of female merchants, but to a larger historical narrative of luxury retail and transatlantic trade.

Louisa E. Brouwer is a material culture scholar whose research focuses on historic jewelry, female merchants and the early-modern antiques trade. Louisa served as the Israel Sack, Inc., Archives Fellow at the Yale University Art Gallery for the past two years. She holds an MA from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and a BA in Art History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her most recent publication, featured in The Magazine Antiques, focuses on Martha Washington and the jewelry retailer Susanna Passavant.

11:00 am - 11:45 pm Domesticating Revolution: Bringing Battle into the Home, and Home into Battle
Zara Anishanslin

Martha Washington used this trunk when travelling to visit her husband each winter throughout the Revolutionary War.

Sarah Pearce Arnold had a most unusual necklace. Arnold, the wife of a Patriot officer in the American Revolution, had a necklace made from a singular metal: the musket ball that hit her husband’s leg in the Battle of Monmouth. Her husband sent home the ball that hit him, causing his leg to be amputated, where his wife made it into a string of beads. During the same war, Martha Washington often lived with her husband in military encampments, infusing an air of domesticity by, for example, serving officers tea from her silver tea set. Sarah Pearce Arnold used objects to bring the battle into the home; Martha Washington used objects to bring home into battle. These women were not singular. “Domesticating Revolution” examines how Martha Washington and other women used objects to bring home into battle, and how—both during and after the war—women also used things to bring battle and its commemoration into the home.

Zara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History at the City University of New York (College of Staten Island). In 2009, she received her PhD in the History of American Civilization at the University of Delaware. From 2009-2010 she was the Patrick Henry Postdoctoral Fellow in History at Johns Hopkins University. Her first book, a history of the British Atlantic World told through the single portrait of a woman in a silk dress, is forthcoming from Yale University Press (2015). In 2014-15, she is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, where she is working on her new project, a history of the American Revolution.

12:00-2:00 pm Lunch on Founders' Terrace
2:00-2:45 pm Gentle Persuasion: Female Influence in Furnishing and Caring for the Early American Home
Betsy Garrett Widmer

Mrs. Benjamin Pickman (Mary Toppan), (1744-1817) painted by John Singleton Copley, American, 1738–1815. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery, bequest of Edith Malvina K. Wetmore

Wives in early America and played important roles in helping to shape home furnishings— from selection and acquisition to use and care. Primary source materials of the period suggest that even though a woman’s name might not appear on the purchase order, her influence was there, whether in collaboration, or with ingenuity. And female oversight of the use and preservation of these furnishings broadly extended her sphere of influence.

Betsy Garrett Widmer is an author, educator and museum consultant. She has enjoyed a career in the museum and auction worlds, and is the author of several books including At Home; the American Family 1750-1870. Most recently she contributed a chapter and several appendices to the book on Salem, Massachusetts’s most prominent mid-eighteenth-century cabinetmaker: In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould. She continues to conduct research for a book on childhood in America.

2:45-3:30 pm Collaborative Consumption: Men and Women Shopping in Federal America
Amy Hudson Henderson

The Washingtons’ bedchamber is dominated by the custom-made mahogany bed that Mrs. Washington purchased in the early 1790s to accommodate her husband’s six-foot two-inch frame.

In the eighteenth century, designing and decorating a home was a collaborative affair between men and women. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons worked together to select the style, look, and feel of their material world. Did George and Martha Washington have a creative partnership in fashioning their home? This exploration of shopping practices in Federal Philadelphia—how and where such Washington peers as Elizabeth Willing Powel, Henry Hill and his sister Mary Lamar, and Anne Allen Penn commissioned and acquired goods—suggests some of the ways the first president and his wife may have shared the responsibilities of decorating Mount Vernon.

Amy Hudson Henderson is an art historian and museum consultant whose work focuses on gender, politics, and material culture in the early republic. Her dissertation, “Furnishing the Republican Court: Building and Decorating Philadelphia Homes, 1790-1800” (University of Delaware), won the Zuckerman Prize in American Studies at The McNeil Center for Early American Studies, University of Pennsylvania, in 2010.

4:00-5:45 pm Behind the scenes tours of:

Conservation Lab
Collection Storage
Library Rare Books & Manuscript Vault

6:00-7:30 pm  Mansion tours emphasizing women of Mount Vernon, and Piazza Reception
8:00-10:00 pm  Dinner in Ford Orientation Center

Sunday, May 31, 2015

7:45-9:00 am Optional morning worship at nearby historic Pohick Church (Episcopal) where George Washington attended and served as vestryman, followed by tour.  
9:00-9:30 am Continental breakfast, Bookout Reception Hall
9:30-10:15 am Mr. Jefferson’s Campeachy Chair

Sumpter Priddy III

Thomas Jefferson advocated furnishing homes to inspire republican virtues. Among the distinctive pieces that caught his imagination was the Campeachy chair, a Latin American form introduced to the United States following the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. In 1817, Nicholas Trist of Louisiana presented the retired president with a Campeachy chair with the initials “TJ” entwined in a cipher on the leather upholstery. Surprisingly, Trist ordered a nearly identical second chair for his grandmother, Elizabeth Trist. The pair stood side by side at Monticello and also at Jefferson’s villa retreat, Poplar Forest, where they were potent symbols of the president’s ties to the amicable — yet little known — Mrs. Trist. This lecture will demonstrate how a search for a single chair’s origins opened a window into a rich 40-year friendship and added meaningful new insights into the life of America’s third president.

Sumpter Priddy III earned his Bachelors Degree in the History of Architecture from the University of Virginia and a Masters from the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. He has long been intrigued by the relationship between architecture, history and the decorative arts, and he is one of the most active researchers in the field. His rediscovery of numerous artisans whose work shaped taste in early America has contributed significantly to a larger understanding of the complexity of regional style. Recent research includes the careers and the products of craftsmen who came from around the globe to Washington, D.C. during the Federal period.

10:15-11:00 am “The colour I leave to you”: Dolley Madison and the Emergence of a Domestic Aesthetic at Montpelier
Meg Kennedy

Dolley Madison, painted by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy, White House Historical Association (White House Collection).

For two decades, Dolley Madison presided over Washington City society where, with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, she famously redecorated the President’s House and hosted weekly drawing room audiences with her husband. Although she was more comfortable in the city, in 1817 Dolley retired with James Madison to Montpelier, their country estate in Orange, Virginia, where she continued to welcome hundreds of guests. Of Montpelier, she wrote, “I am less worried here with a hundred visitors than with 25 in W[ashington].” By the time she sold the plantation in 1844, Montpelier bore Dolley’s signature style, an ample and uniquely American amalgam of regional goods and her distinctive interpretation of continental elegance. Today, as we uncover and restore Dolley’s home, we are reminded of her role as an early and enduring style icon. As her friend Margaret Bayard Smith noted, “Hospitality is the presiding genius of this house, and Mrs. M. is kindness personified.”

Meg Kennedy is the Director of Museum Services at James Madison’s Montpelier, where she leads the curatorial and research staff on the mansion interiors initiative. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts’ Five College Graduate Program in History; her thesis explored colonial revival memorialization in New England, particularly through the work of Clara Endicott Sears at Fruitlands, the Utopian community founded by Louisa May Alcott’s father.

11:00-11:15 am Break
11:15-12:00 pm  "To What It Was": The First Fifty Years of Collecting and Curating Mount Vernon
Lydia Mattice Brandt

An early postcard view of George Washington’s “New Room,” furnished by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association as a sort of relic room.

Although the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union purchased Mount Vernon in 1858 with hopes to return Washington's home "to what it was" during the General's lifetime, they initially had few tools with which to accomplish this goal. The study and appreciation of American architecture and decorative arts were in their infancy and the Ladies had meager coffers with which to purchase relics or outfit the house's worn interiors. Dr. Brandt will trace the development and refinement of the MVLA’s early collection and curating practices and reveal how Mount Vernon emerged from humble beginnings to become the first house museum in the United States to simulate early American interiors. 

Lydia Mattice Brandt is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, where she teaches the history of American architecture, art, and material culture, and the theories and methods of historic preservation. She is currently finishing a book on Mount Vernon's image in popular American architecture and was honored to be an inaugural fellow at The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington in 2013-14.

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