The front parlor and its furnishings are a complex compilation of objects that evolved over more than forty years of the Washingtons’ marriage.

The earliest objects found within the space are the portraits of Martha Dandridge Custis and her two children, John (Jacky) Parke Custis and Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis, the overmantel painting, and George Washington’s coat-of-arms in a cartouche. The seating furniture represents a set that was given to George Washington by his close friend and neighbor George William Fairfax, a constant reminder of the friendship between the two families. The latest objects, the mirror, mirrors and brackets, and Sharples pastels returned with the Washingtons after the presidency, as did many of the frames on the family paintings.

Portraits

The best-documented furnishings in the front parlor are the many works of art that once hung on the walls. Following Virginia gentry practice, George and Martha Washington placed the majority of their family portraits in the front parlor, the domain of the woman of the house. Martha Washington commissioned nearly all of the portraits in the room. The paintings show the evolution and merging of the Washington and Custis families over more than forty years.

Martha Dandridge Custis

By John Wollaston, 1757

Digital facsimile print and reproduction frame

John (Jacky) Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis

By Charles Volkmar after John Wollaston, 1757

19th-century oil-on-canvas replica and reproduction frame

In 1757, Martha Dandridge Custis and her first husband Daniel Parke Custis commissioned a pair of portraits of themselves along with a smaller portrait of their two young children. They intended to hang these pictures at their home at White House plantation, but before they were completed, disaster stuck: Daniel died on July 8, 1757. Nearly two years later, Martha brought these two portraits with her to Mount Vernon and she likely left the portrait of Daniel behind.

John Wollaston painted Martha in a fashionable dress with a background of sky and trees. Her pose, setting, and dress attest to her gentility, while the orange branch in her hand symbolizes her fertility. The entire scene, with the exception of Martha’s face, is almost certainly derived from an English print source. Trained as a drapery painter in London, John Wollaston was one of the few itinerant portrait painters in the Mid-Atlantic in the mid-18th century. He traveled through Virginia in the 1750s and painted many of the Colony’s most prominent citizens.

Recreation: George and Martha Washington replaced the frames on the two large Wollaston portraits and the Charles Willson Peale sometime after 1795 when George wrote to his farm manager requesting the sizes of the paintings. Though the original frames do not survive, George Washington’s probate inventory notes that they were “Gilt,” and given the date of their purchase, they were likely made in the neoclassical style in Philadelphia. This upgrade refreshed older portraits and brought their decoration into alignment with many of the other changes in the room. This simple “American cove” style frame with composition ornament leaves is a common Philadelphia model of the period. It was made by P.H. Miller Studios of Berryville, Virginia. The original painting is owned by Washington and Lee University, and this photographic facsimile was made by Old Town Editions of Alexandria.

Colonel George Washington

by Charles Willson Peale, 1772

Digital facsimile print and reproduction frame

Annapolis-born artist Charles Willson Peale visited Mount Vernon for ten days in May 1772 and painted the first known portrait of George Washington to hang as a pendant to John Wollaston’s earlier portrait of Martha Dandridge Custis. 

For the portrait, Washington sported fashionable accessories that communicated his status as a former military officer. He wears a silver gorget, engraved with the British royal coat of arms, around his neck and a red military sash across his chest—both symbols of rank. At Washington’s left side, the artist depicted the silver hilt of his ornamental smallsword, made in London after 1767. Washington’s uniform displays the blue and red colors of the Virginia Regiment—the unit he commanded from 1755 to 1758, during the French and Indian War—but he has updated the coat’s cut to an early 1770s style.

The portrait’s setting evokes Washington’s military service but does not represent a specific event or location. The tents at lower left signal a military encampment, while the waterfall and the vast forests and mountains rising beyond suggest the landscape of the Ohio River Valley.

Recreation: George and Martha Washington replaced the frames on the two large Wollaston portraits and the Charles Willson Peale sometime after 1795 when George wrote to his farm manager from requesting the sizes of the paintings. Though the original frames do not survive, George Washington’s probate inventory notes that they were “Gilt,” and given the date of their purchase, they were likely made in the neoclassical style in Philadelphia. This upgrade refreshed older portraits and brought their decoration into alignment with many of the other changes in the room. This simple “American cove” style frame with composition ornament leaves is a common Philadelphia model of the period; it was made by P.H. Miller Studios of Berryville, Virginia. The original painting is owned by Washington and Lee University, and this photographic facsimile was made by Old Town Editions of Alexandria. The original is on exhibition in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center at Mount Vernon.

Frances (Fanny) Bassett Washington

Gavin Ashworth

Gavin Ashworth

by Robert Edge Pine, 1785

Original oil-on-canvas and reproduction frame

In 1785, British-born artist Robert Edge Pine immigrated to the United States and visited Mount Vernon at the recommendation of George William Fairfax to take George Washington’s portrait. Pine had supported the American cause during the American Revolution, destroying his business opportunities, and Washington took this opportunity to support the fledgling artist by commissioning portraits of the four Custis grandchildren. Pine also painted this portrait of Frances (Fanny) Bassett Washington as a gift for Martha Washington.

Fanny Bassett was Martha’s niece through her sister Anna Maria Dandridge and her husband Burwell Bassett. After Anna Maria died in 1777, Martha offered to raise Fanny, but she did not move to Mount Vernon until the 1780s. There, she met George Washington’s nephew George Augustine Washington, and she married him at Mount Vernon just months before this portrait was completed. The couple lived at Mount Vernon and helped the Washingtons manage the plantation. After George Augustine’s death in 1793, Fanny married President Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear, but she passed away just a short while later in 1796.

Recreation: Robert Edge Pine framed this portrait in Annapolis, and he wrote to George Washington that he was “much disappointed in the execution of the Frames.” The artist may have been hoping for a larger frame with a bolder profile. While the original frame does not survive, several Pine portraits painted at the same time do survive with their original frames in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society. P. H. Miller Studios of Berryville, Virginia reproduced this frame with the gracious permission of the Maryland Historical Society. Ann Creager and Alexandra Tice of Maryland and Washington, D.C. conducted the painting conservation.

George Washington, Martha Washington, Eleanor Parke Custis, George Washington Parke Custis, and George Washington Lafayette

by James Sharples, 1796

Digital facsimile prints and reproduction frames

At the conclusion of the presidency, George Washington commissioned profile portraits of his two namesakes, George Washington (Washy) Parke Custis and George Washington Motier de Lafayette from the renowned English portrait painter James Sharples. They rounded out the set with portraits of George, Martha, and Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis and hung them in the front parlor upon their return to Mount Vernon.

The Sharples portraits represent a window into the complex framework of the President’s “domestic family.” Though the Washington’s were never able to have children of their own, they served as the adoptive parents of Martha’s two youngest grandchildren, Washy and Nelly. The two lived with them as teenagers in Philadelphia and were certainly considered members of the immediate family. The artist captured the young Lafayette, age 16, while he lived with the Washingtons in exile from France. During the Reign of Terror, the Marquis de Lafayette was declared a traitor and imprisoned. His son escaped and spent a year-and-a-half in the United States living with the Washingtons, and they considered them one of their own.

The artist apparently garnered commissions by asking certain dignitaries to sit for profiles, and then enticing them to purchase one or more copies of the completed portraits. He often retained the original portrait so that he (or other members of his family) could copy them. A number of sources suggest that the Sharples’ supposedly mathematically correct proportions were derived from the use of a physiognotrace, a type of pantograph, a new technology in the period.

Frames: George Washington’s probate inventory lists four of the James Sharples in “Ovolo Gilt frame[s] and the fifth, of Eleanor Parke Custis, in a “Gilt Square frame.” While none of Mount Vernon’s Sharples portraits survive in their original frames, many others do. P. H. Miller Studios reproduced these frames based on originals owned by Philip Bradley Antiques (square) and a private owner (oval). Joseph Painter of Pennsylvania created the digital facsimiles.

Thomas Law

by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1797

Original oil-on-canvas and reproduction frame

This handsome portrait of Englishman Thomas Law was produced in the late 1790s by Gilbert Stuart, the preeminent artist of the period in America. It may have been painted in 1796, the year Thomas Law married Elizabeth (Eliza or Betsy) Parke Custis, the eldest granddaughter of Martha Washington. The Laws soon had a daughter, Eliza Parke Custis Law, but differences in temperament led to their separation. Law returned to England between 1802 and 1804, the couple legally separated in 1804, and they divorced in 1811. In this painting, Law is shown in a prominently visible pink "underwaistcoat,’" a garment that had recently come into fashion. Though there is no record of the Washingtons acquiring the painting, it was likely a gift from Thomas Law. The painting appears on both George and Martha Washington’s probate inventories.

Frame: Thomas Law likely had this portrait framed in Philadelphia in preparation for presenting it to George and Martha Washington. The painting is the most valuable listed in the Front Parlor at $80, and the quality and ornamentation of the frame likely contributed to its expense. This frame is a replica based on an original found on a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington painted in 1795. The beading, lamb’s tongue molding, and spiral decorations all added to the piece’s expense. P. H. Miller Studios of Berryville, Virginia reproduced this frame with drawings done by Steven W. Spandle, Architect and the gracious permission of Christie’s, Inc. Ann Creager and Alexandra Tice of Maryland and Washington, D.C. conducted the painting conservation.

Missing Artwork

The front parlor’s artwork is some of the best documented in any room in early America. Of the original fourteen pieces, eleven survive and are represented in the room. We know a lot about the three remaining pieces: a group portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette and family; an allegorical painting of George Washington; and a portrait of Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis. We have left empty spaces in the room where we believe these pieces may once have hung, and we hope they might appear one day.

Marquis de Lafayette and family, c. 1785

In 1785, the Marquis de Lafayette sent the Washingtons a group portrait of "American uniform [who] is presenting to his wife, who is seated, his son aged 4 also in an American uniform; his two daughters nearly the same age complete the group.” Julian Ursyn Niecewicz recorded that “the picture is well painted and well composed but that the paint has fallen off in many places.” When the Washingtons received this painting, they likely removed the 1779 Charles Willson Peale portrait of the Marquis and moved it to the second floor bedchamber in which the great man once slept. George Washington thanked Lafayette saying that he considered it “an invaluable present” and that he would “give it the best place in my House.” He almost certainly hung the painting above the sofa on the south wall, where it would have been the focal point of the room.

The painting was heavily damaged in the 18th-century. Julian Niecewicz recorded that “The marquise has a broad slash the whole length of the left side of her face, a slash which has deprived her of an eye: the older of the girls is also one-eyed, and the longer has lost the end of her nose.” What happened to this painting after Martha Washington’s death is unclear. It should have descended to George Washington Parke Custis and then to his family, but its present whereabouts are unknown. Was the piece too damaged to preserve, or is it languishing somewhere unidentified? We are actively looking for more clues to this piece’s whereabouts.

“Emblematic of George Washington”

by Mrs. Peter John Van Berkel

The wife of the Netherlands’ first minister plenipotentiary to the United States presented George Washington with an allegorical scene painted on copper “eighteen by twenty inches in size.” One visitor described the piece as a scene “representing the three Fates or Destinies spinning the thread of Washington’s Life: one of the Sisters has spun the thread from the flax on the Distaff; a second is winding it on the reel; and the third is extending her shears to cut it off, while Cupid seizes her arm at the elbow to hold it back and Fame flies away in an opposite direction with the Thread. So it is represented in the Picture; but stern Clotho at length, incapable of being longer restrained cut the fatal thread.” George Washington Parke Custis inherited the piece and presented it to General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina and its current whereabouts are unknown.

“Mrs. Washington’s daughter when grown”

A portrait of “Mrs. Washington’s daughter when grown” is listed in George Washington’s probate inventory, but nothing further is known about the piece. The original must have depicted Martha “Patsy” Parke Custis, the daughter of Martha Dandridge and Daniel Parke Custis who died at age 16 in 1773. The only known images of Patsy were painted by John Wollaston in 1757 and by Charles Willson Peale in 1772.

Furnishings

Seating Furniture

Gavin Asworth

Gavin Asworth

Gavin Ashworth

Gavin Ashworth

Recreation, 2017-2019

In 1774, Washington received a new suite of parlor furniture as a gift from his friend and neighbor, George William Fairfax. This suite consisted of a set of eight backstools, chairs upholstered on the back and the seat, and a sofa all upholstered in luxurious blue silk and worsted damask. While none of this furniture survives today, there is clear documentation of the appearance of the furniture, its travel from a London upholsterer to the blue dressing chamber at Belvoir Plantation, and finally to the front parlor at Mount Vernon.

The furniture is extensively described in George William Fairfax’s account book and also in the inventory he took before departing Virginia in 1774. The chairs and sofa were all covered with “Superfe. Saxon Blue Mix’d Damask,” an expensive patterned textile made from silk and worsted fibers woven in a damask pattern. The curtains were made from the same cloth and lined with “fine Blew Tamy,” or tammy, a plain woven, glazed wool fabric that likely also covered the backs of the chairs and sofa. The color of the damask, Saxon blue, was a recently invented dye that was made with by mixing sulfuric acid and indigo. The result was a vibrant blue inclining towards green. The color seems to have been highly durable and was used from its invention in 1749 through at least the end of the 18th century.

Recreation: Mount Vernon curators worked with upholstery experts in England and the United States to reconstruct the Fairfax/Washington suite of furniture. Adam Erby and Lucy Wood researched comparable examples of backstools and sofas surviving with original upholstery in English country houses. Kate Smith of Eaton Hill Weavers of Marshfield, Vermont used 18th-century dye recipes to perfect the Saxon blue color. Humphries Silk Weaving of Suffolk, England wove the silk and worsted wool damask using a damask pattern found on another backstool. Leroy Graves of Williamsburg, Virginia made the sofa and backstools.

Mirrors and Brackets

Gavin Ashworth

Gavin Ashworth

Recreation

George Washington purchased a variety of “Brackets glasses etc” from Philadelphia carver and gilder James Reynolds in 1791. These pieces served as girandoles, or decorative supports for lighting devices, in the neoclassical taste. The Washingtons purchased two sets, a larger version used in the Green Drawing Room of the executive residence and later the New Room, and a smaller set used in a more intimate setting in the executive residence and later in the parlor. While the girandoles in the New Room held “elegant lustres,” or glass candelabra, those in the front parlor held Argand lamps. The original front parlor mirrors and brackets survive in fragmentary form at Tudor Place, the home of Martha Parke Custis Peter, Mount Vernon, and in a private collection.

Recreation: Robert McCullough of McCullough & Hoover made these reconstructions and filled in the missing elements using other elements from James Reynolds’s known oeuvre. Peter Miller gilded the pieces and created the mirrored glass.

Argand Lamp

Original objects, England, c. 1790

This sleek "patent lamp" was both aesthetically pleasing and technologically advanced when Gouverneur Morris purchased fourteen of them at George Washington's request while in London in 1790. A single piece of fused silverplate forms its classically inspired, urn-shaped body, which serves as the oil reservoir. The drop burner employs a tubular wick held between two concentric metal tubes with a glass chimney above. Genovese inventor François-Pierre Aimé Argand (1750-1803) revolutionized lighting with this deceptively simple innovation. His patented design dramatically improved airflow, thereby producing a brighter flame that burned longer and produced less smoke than earlier oil lamps and candles. These lamps fill the mirrors behind them, which were likely made to coordinate with these specific lamps.

Wilton Carpet

Reproduction

In March of 1797, George Washington wrote to his secretary, Tobias Lear, who was in Philadelphia requesting that he purchase a carpet for the Front Parlor, saying that “as the furniture was blue, the ground or principal flowers in it ought to be blue also.” Floor coverings were expensive commodities in the 18th-century, and carpets of any type were rare. Washington requested a Wilton carpet, a type of jacquard-woven carpet with a cut pile made in England, and one of the most expensive types available. Washington presumably received what he requested, and the carpet in the front parlor was the most expensive listed in George Washington’s probate inventory.

Recreation: The Woodward Grosvenor firm of Kidderminster, England, made this reproduction for the front parlor based on point papers of the 1790s in their collection. Per Washington’s request, the principal flowers in the design are blue.

Pier

In gentry parlors, looking glasses were most frequently placed in the space between two windows, an architectural feature called a pier, while a table was placed below completing the ensemble. Although the pier in Mount Vernon’s front parlor is unusually placed (it is not centered on the wall), it is most likely that Washington followed period practice and placed a looking glass on the pier.

Looking Glass

Gavin Ashworth

Gavin Ashworth

REPRODUCTION, 2018

When the Washingtons returned from the presidency, they brought one of the largest and most elaborate looking glasses from the executive residence. They had purchased this elaborate looking glass with neoclassical carving and scrollwork in 1790 from New York retailers J & N Roosevelt. The piece features elegant swags, bellflowers, and an urn resting on a pedestal in a design taken almost directly from one of the latest London pattern books, George Hepplewhite’s The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide. The looking glass design includes an elegant “border,” which consists of eight additional mirrored panes around the central pane surrounded held into place by gilded straps. Martha Washington valued this looking glass so much that she bequeathed it to her granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis in her will. The original survives today in fragmentary condition in the Lewis Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. This reproduction is a copy of the original made by Eli Wilner of New York City. Missing elements were extrapolated from a similar looking glass at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Pembroke Table

Period example, c. 1795

Washington original (W-2660) is on view in the Museum

The Washingtons owned a variety of tea tables, but the one in the front parlor was the most fashionable, valuable, and up-to-date. Purchased from New York City cabinetmaker Thomas Burling in 1789, the Washingtons used the elaborately inlayed neoclassical table throughout the presidency and brought it back with them to Mount Vernon where it took pride of place. The Washingtons called this type of table a tea table, but pattern books referred to it as a Pembroke table. Pembroke tables were fashionable from mid-century. Smaller than dining tables and taller than traditional tea tables, these light weight, mobile tables served a variety of functions. They could have been used as tea tables, card tables, sewing tables, or writing tables. All of these activities took place in the front parlor, making its inclusion particularly appropriate. While there have been a variety of these tables on view in the Mansion in the past, the Washingtons only owned one example of this type.

Mantel, Overmantel, and Fireback

The architectural focal point of the room is the mantel and overmantel, which are derived from a plate in Abraham Swan’s popular pattern book, The British Architect, which was first published in London in 1745.

Fireback

Mantel, Overmantel, and Fireback in the Front Parlor, Gavin Ashworth

Mantel, Overmantel, and Fireback in the Front Parlor, Gavin Ashworth

Reproduction, 2018

As part of his post-Revolutionary War renovations to the Mansion, George Washington commissioned custom firebacks with his crest and cypher for use in the finest rooms in the Mansion. Made of cast iron, the firebacks served the practical purpose of protecting the bricks lining a fireplace from heat damage and retaining heat, but they often showed off the wealth of the owner with coats-of-arms or family crests. The original Front Parlor fireback was made at the Batsto Furnace in New Jersey in 1787, and it survives today in the collection. Because of Mansion stabilization work, the curatorial staff removed the original, which is in fragile condition, and created an exacting replica. Once Mansion stabilization is complete, the original will be conserved and returned to its original location.

A Neat Landscape after Claude Lorrain

Gavin Ashworth

Gavin Ashworth

ORIGINAL OIL-ON-CANVAS, C. 1757, By unknown London artist

In 1757, George Washington wrote to his London agent requesting “A Neat Landskip” of a particular size to fit above a mantel. He received in return “A Neat Landscape-after Claude Lorrain.” Claude Lorrain (c. 1605-1682) was a seventeenth-century French painter known for his dark-tinted landscape paintings that were often elevated to the higher genre of history painting by the addition of a few small figures. Eighteenth-century Britons avidly collected his work and prints made from these views.

This painting is a loose interpretation of one of Claude’s dramatic views in which a shepherd pauses to contemplate the ships in the sunny harbor. The original artwork has sustained serious damage given its exposure to the elements and its position above a fireplace. The bottom right corner has lost all of its original paint and the painting is darker than it would have been in the period. Ann Creager and Alexandra Tice of Maryland and Washington, D.C. conducted the painting conservation.

Washington Coat-of-Arms Cartouche

Gavin Ashworth

Gavin Ashworth

Original object, beech, England, c. 1757

To crown the overmantel, Washington ordered his coat of arms carved in wood from London. The finely detailed cartouche, executed in the rococo taste, laid claim to an aristocratic heritage. The English College of Arms granted the coat-of-arms to Washington’s ancestor Lawrence Washington of Sulgrave Manor in 1592. George Washington’s cartouche was executed in beech, a wood often used for carving in England, but rarely used for such purposes in the colonies.

Architectural Restoration of the Front Parlor

Before objects could be added to the room, the team spent years researching and restoring the space.

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