“1 painted likeness of an Alloe”
At the center of the chimney wall is a modern recreation of “1 painted likeness of an Alloe”. The original remains unlocated, but its gift to Washington from Charles Pinckney in the fall of 1791 is well documented.
In May of 1791, during the Southern Tour, Washington visited Pinckney in South Carolina and admired the Agave americana in Pinckney’s garden. Also known as the American aloe or the Century plant, the Agave Americana was a new world marvel, native to Mexico and southwestern North America.
The Agave americana blooms only once, at the end of its life, which in native conditions may be between 5-15 years. Specimens collected in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries and grown in northern European botanical gardens took much longer to bloom, and the plant consequently earned the moniker of 'the century plant.' When the plant does bloom, it does so in magnificent style, sending up a phenomenal 15-30 foot spike.
At the time of Washington’s visit to South Carolina, the aloe was not in bloom. Pinckney wrote George Washington, “As you said you had never seen one & expressed a wish that you could see one in Bloom I thought this the best way of enabling you to form a judgement of it in that State.”
The painting was intended to be botanically precise, representing the aloe in bloom as it appeared that July, and as Pinckney further observed, “The stalk or pole of the Aloe was erected in less than six weeks—So the plant was in the bloom represented in the draught in about ten weeks.”
Washington, The Magnificent Aloe of America
A few weeks after Washington’s visits with Pinckney, while in Columbia, SC, South Carolinians toasted Washington as “The magnificent Aloe of America,” the man of the century. The use of American aloe as an emblem for an extraordinary life seems to have become a learned commonplace, as European monarchs had used it in this fashion since the late seventeenth century.
As a conversation piece in the Little Parlor, the painting of the American aloe not only presented a botanical novelty for discussion but also, for more philosophical viewers, a metaphor for Washington himself and a meditation on his rare virtue.