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Art in a variety of media – watercolor, engraving, embroidery, and sculpture – filled the Little Parlor.

Many of the prints in the Little Parlor feature a maritime theme, perhaps a nod to the Potomac River visible through the room’s east-facing windows.

The present installation represents 15 of the 20 artworks that were originally in the room, all of those that could be located and reproduced for the installation.

On Arranging the Art

The arrangement of the pictures follows period practice, with a dense hang of smaller images on the chimney wall, and the larger prints placed high on the walls around the room.

This picture shows a parlor similar to the Washington’s Little Parlor, and provided a reference point for the picture arrangement chosen for the Little Parlor.

On Arranging the Art

Harpsichord Recital at Count Rumford's, Benjamin Thompson, c. 1800, Courtesy, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Arranging the Art

First Image
Second Image

The arrangement of the pictures follows period practice, with a dense hang of smaller images on the chimney wall, and the larger prints placed high on the walls around the room.

This picture, "Harpsichord Recital at Count Rumford's," shows a parlor similar to the Washington’s Little Parlor, and provided a reference point for the picture arrangement chosen for the Little Parlor.

Harpsichord Recital at Count Rumford's, Benjamin Thompson, c. 1800. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“...yet another parlor decorated with beautiful engravings representing storms and seascapes.”

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, 1797 visitor to Mount Vernon.

Prints Purchased During the Presidency

Washington acquired all six of the large prints in the Little Parlor prior to his departure from the presidency. All appear on Washington’s 1797 lists of “Prints purchased” and were part of the stock offered by the preeminent London printseller John Boydell.

The marine scenes and naval battles in the Little Parlor appear to have garnered the most attention from visitors, and understandably so, given the high drama of the subjects. The admiring accounts of several visitors from varying backgrounds — the Polish nobleman Niemcewicz, the German merchant Hoenighaus, and the Englishman Joshua Brookes — give reason to think that the prints caught the eye of others as well, some of whom may have paused to scrutinize them and consider their historical and moral import.

Shipwrecks and Storms

Storm after a Picture of Vanderhagen in the Possession of Mr. Cotes

Storm after a Picture of Vanderhagen in the Possession of Mr. Cotes

A Storm with Lightning

A Storm with Lightning

The first prints listed in the room, “2 prints representing Storms at Sea,” were a pair of conventional shipwreck scenes in the Dutch manner, offering viewers a vicarious experience of nature’s terrors, as they witnessed ships and sailors struggling against nature’s sublime fury.

Storm after a Picture of Vanderhagen in the Possession of Mr. Cotes

In the first shipwreck scene, Storm after a Picture of Vanderhagen in the Possession of Mr. Cotes, three ships are visible, each seen in a different stage of peril. The central ship is shown at the climax of the crisis; its mainmast splits and falls, and the ship is driven onto the rocky coast. The second ship at the right, still intact, is also about to be driven onto the rocks, while the third, on the horizon at left, is sinking.

A Storm with Lightning

The second shipwreck scene, A Storm with Lightning, was engraved after a painting by Hendrik Kobell (1751-1779). Here again, ships are shown in the moment of crisis. On the central ship, the mainmast splits and falls, while lightning cuts across the sky, hits the ship in the distance, and ignites a fire. The castle on the rocky shore, suggesting a foreign nation, adds to the foreboding atmosphere.

Dramatic Sea Battles and Heroism

The pair of “sea battles” caught the eye of the German guest, Hoenighaus, in March 1798: “a Sea fight – between Paul Jones of the Bon Hoome Richard & Capt. Pearson of the Seraphis” and “the distressed situation of the Quebec &c,” as listed on the 1800 inventory.

A comparison with Washington’s 1797 “Prints purchased” lists confirms that these were the prints issued in 1780-1781 by John Boydell, after the paintings by Richard Paton (1716/17-1791). While Boydell’s stock included six paintings of naval engagements from the American Revolution, Washington notably selected the only ones that featured American or French victories. Both prints were arguably the most dramatic of the series as well.

While the engagements were not central to the trajectory of the conflict, they were among the bloodiest naval actions of the war. The prints vividly captured the horrors of the battles and celebrated the heroic valor of the commanders. Statistics listed below the prints described the ships, the progress of the battle, and the number of killed and wounded on each side.

The Memorable Engagement of Captn. Pearson of the Serapis with Paul Jones of the Bon Homme Richard & his Squadron, Sep. 23, 1779

The victory of the Bonhomme Richard over the HMS  Serapis on the moonlit night of 23 September 1779 off Flamborough Head in British waters was the most celebrated American naval victory of the war, and it became emblematic of the indomitable American spirit.

During this battle, Commodore John Paul Jones reportedly issued his defiant retort to the British request to surrender, along the lines of “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Washington’s print of the subject offered the patriotic British perspective on the battle. Serapis appears, clearly labeled, in the left middle, with the Richard shown alongside her, and the last episodes of the four-hour struggle before the British surrender are portrayed: the fire and lost mainmast on the Serapis and the newly-arrived American Alliance joining the fray.

The Memorable Engagement of Captn. Pearson of the Serapis with Paul Jones of the Bon Homme Richard & his Squadron, Sep. 23, 1779

The distressed situation of the Quebec & Surveillante

The distressed situation of the Quebec & Surveillante portrayed the climax of the hard-fought battle between the HMS Quebec and the more heavily armed Surveillante, which occurred just two weeks after the battle of Flamborough Head.

A relatively minor incident during the war, it was technically a French victory, gained at a heavy cost, with the near complete loss of the Surveillante and many of her men. Captain Farmer’s courage in attacking the larger French vessel, his noble adherence to duty, and his horrific end garnered the most public attention.

At center right, the viewer witnesses flames engulfing Quebec, in the terrible last moments before a massive explosion ripped the ship apart and consumed the captain and two-thirds of the crew. At center left, the Surveillante, herself dismasted and sinking, has just disentangled herself and separated from the Quebec.

Captain Farmer makes his last appearance in the stern of the British ship, directing the escape. A few naked sailors struggle to escape the burning ship, a boat attempts to come to their aid, and others cling to the wreckage in the foreground. High swells complicate the rescue effort, a detail true to witness accounts.

The distressed situation of the Quebec & Surveillante

Artist Richard Paton’s heartfelt dedication captured the sentiments the print intended to arouse: “In Memory of the much lamented tho' glorious Death of Capt. Farmer who when he had silenced his Enemy was blown up in his Ship after an Action of three Hours & a half on the 6th of October 1779. This Representation is with great Veneration Dedicated to the Officers of the Royal Navy, by their most Obedient Servant. Richard Paton.”

The Whaling Industry and International Policy

The final large pair of pictures presented equally action-packed scenes of the whale fisheries of Greenland and Davis’s Straights (between Greenland and Canada).

Versions of similar scenes had appeared in British prints since the 1720s and remained a reliable seller in both British and American printsellers’ stocks well into the 1870s. For the general public, the primary appeal of these prints may have lain in the romance and adventure associated with whaling, but the prints also tapped into viewers’ patriotism, whether British or American, the fisheries representing a lucrative trade for both nations.

After the Revolution, protecting the interests of New England merchants and whalers became an important facet of U.S. foreign policy. For the Washingtons, these prints may have recalled the America’s efforts to protect its stake in the whale oil trade.

Rugged and Romantic Whaling

The Northwest or Davis’s Streights Whale Fishery

The Northwest or Davis’s Streights Whale Fishery

The Greenland Whale Fishery

The Greenland Whale Fishery

The Northwest or Davis’s Streights Whale Fishery

Each print presents scenes of intense competition and activity, showing the main competitors in the whale fisheries, the Dutch and English, working in close quarters to catch their quarries. The foreground of The Northwest or Davis’s Streights Whale Fishery presents the viewer with the climactic moment just before the harpoon is driven into the whale. In the middle distance, another successful British crew appears to be towing in a dead whale.

The turbulent, frigid environment, apparent in the wind-whipped water, the full-bellied sails of the ships, and the craggy icebergs, heightens the drama of Herculean battles of man versus beast in a contested seascape.

The Greenland Whale Fishery

The Greenland Whale Fishery extends the story, discreetly showing some of the stages of processing the whale, but the scene appears somewhat calm by comparison to the Davis’s Streights. A crew with a successful run brings the dead whale ashore in the foreground. In the middle distance at left, a British crew secures the whale carcass for the cutting in. In the far distance, Dutch and British crews each chase whales in  pposite directions, while a polar bear placidly observes the activity from an ice floe at right.

“...over the fire place is a miniature marble likeness of G. Washington, one of Dr. Franklin & other pieces 3 or 4 of which were landscapes painted by Miss Custis.”

Joshua Brookes, 1799 visitor to Mount Vernon.

Chimney Wall Grouping

The art grouping over the mantlepiece includes: aloe botanical watercolor (center), Indian Blackbuck printwork, watercolors, Peale mezzotints portraits.

The art grouping over the mantlepiece includes: aloe botanical watercolor (center), Indian Blackbuck printwork, watercolors, Peale mezzotints portraits.

When Joshua Brookes visited in February 1799, he noted that “over the fire place is a miniature marble likeness of G. Washington, one of Dr. Franklin & other pieces 3 or 4 of which were landscapes painted by Miss Custis.”

Brookes’ remarks, together with the evidence of picture hangs from period depictions of 18th-century interiors, led curators to arrange the multitude of watercolors, embroidery, and smaller prints on the chimney wall.

The Century Plant, The Century Man

Modern recreation of “1 painted likeness of an Alloe” based on botanical drawings of the period.

Modern recreation of “1 painted likeness of an Alloe” based on botanical drawings of the period.

Flowering Agave, courtesy of Jim Robbins and The North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox.

Flowering Agave, courtesy of Jim Robbins and The North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox.

“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.

The Indian Blackbuck

Original printwork “Likeness of a Deer,” attributed to Martha Washington.

Original printwork “Likeness of a Deer,” attributed to Martha Washington.

Indian blackbuck antelope. Plate III of Recueil de Divers Animaux de Chasse, Tiré du Cabinet de Monsieur le Comte de Tessin (Paris, Le Bas, 1749).

Indian blackbuck antelope. Plate III of Recueil de Divers Animaux de Chasse, Tiré du Cabinet de Monsieur le Comte de Tessin (Paris, Le Bas, 1749).

Below the aloe is a reproduction photo of a silk embroidery, described as “The likeness of a Deer” on the probate inventory. The original (W-5565) is one of only three original artworks to survive from the Little Parlor. The masterful embroidery, a type known as printwork, uses tiny, precise black silk stitches to imitate the appearance of an engraving.

Rather than a deer, the embroidery depicts an Indian blackbuck, a type of antelope distinguished by its spiral antlers. The design is taken, in reverse, from plate III of Recueil de Divers Animaux de Chasse, Tiré du Cabinet de Monsieur le Comte de Tessin (Paris, Le Bas, 1749). Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) painted the original of the blackbuck after the living example imported from India to France and displayed in the royal French menagerie at Versailles.

The embroidery has been attributed to Martha Washington, an accomplished needleworker, on the basis of an inscription on the back by her granddaughter Martha (Patty) Parke Custis Peter: “This Piece of work was given me by my Grandmother Mrs. Martha Washington….”

Learn more about Martha Washington's Needlework

Watercolors of Landscapes and Birds

On the sides of the chimney wall, reproduction watercolors of landscapes and birds, originally painted by Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, represent 4 of the “6 others [pictures] of different Paintings” in the room. As Brookes’s account suggests, some, if not all, were likely painted by her.

Eleanor had taken drawing and painting lessons in New York and Philadelphia during Washington’s presidency from artists such as William Dunlap and William Groombridge. In 1798, the enraptured Julian Niemcewicz proclaimed that “she plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.” Upon Niemcewicz’s departure, she gave him one of her watercolors.

It is also possible that some of the pieces may have been by friends or even her brother, George Washington Parke Custis, who, while he never attained the acclaim given his sister, also received drawing lessons and made drawing and painting a lifelong pursuit.

Learn more about Nelly's Watercolors

Wharf

Cedar Waxwing and Cherries

Yellow Bird on a Branch

Bas-Relief Porcelain Plaques

Two bas-relief porcelain plaques of George Washington and Richard Franklin, given to Washington by ceramicist Richard Champion, were likely also placed on the chimney wall between 1797 and early 1799, as described in Brookes’s account of his visit.

Space has been allotted for both of them, but they appear to have been given by Mrs. Washington to her granddaughters at some point prior to the probate inventory.

The fragile Washington plaque is on view in the Museum; the Franklin plaque is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art collection.

George Washington

Benjamin Franklin

Mezzotints of Washington, Lafayette, and Franklin

Just above the mantel, the three oval prints of Washington, Lafayette, and Franklin listed on the inventory were the three small mezzotints of these leaders issued by Charles Willson Peale. Peale gave the set to Washinton in 1787.

The fine detail of the mezzotints captures the best features of each figure, worthy of display and close study in a domestic setting: the resolute Washington, youthful Lafayette, and contemplative elder statesman and philosopher, Franklin.

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