Before the White House or the United States Capitol, George Washington’s Mount Vernon became an enduring symbol of the fledgling United States. It was the home to which George Washington retired after his two most important acts in public life—his resignation as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and his peaceful transfer of power to the second President of the United States. From the 1790s, European and American artists visited Mount Vernon to record the home of the man considered to be the father of the country, and they created paintings and prints of the site for display in patriotic American homes. This established Mount Vernon as a central location in the foundation of an American iconography. George Washington’s Mount Vernon owns the most significant collection of these original images, and each print and painting captures what the site meant to that artist in his/her particular historical moment.
Recently, George Washington’s Mount Vernon approached Eli Wilner & Company to create a historically appropriate frame for one of its significant paintings, Thomas Prichard Rossiter’s painting “Palmy Days at Mount Vernon.” The very title recalls the expression “the palmy days of yesteryear” and evokes a supposed sense of prosperity and harmony in times past. This painting offers us the opportunity to interpret the artist’s intentions from our own individual experiences and perspectives, breaking through established rhetoric. While many artists before him simply painted the house, Rossiter was one of the first to imagine the house populated with many of the history-making individuals who visited George and Martha Washington over the years. George Washington is seated in the shade of the summerhouse surrounded by friends and family with the Mount Vernon mansion in the background. The artist consulted period paintings and sculpture to create the most accurate likeness of each individual portrayed. Some of the guests include James and Dolley Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, and George Washington Lafayette, and Lord Fairfax, a group of people who were never in one place at the same time. He painted this work in 1866, the year after the formal end of the American Civil War, as the nation began the long process of recovery from the war’s devastation. Significantly, Rossiter chose to depict an enslaved man in livery serving guests coffee, a nod to white Southerners’ nostalgia for a bygone era. Such depictions of idyllic settings with enslaved servants were not uncommon at the time. The presence of enslaved people in such paintings serves as a reminder of the centrality of slavery to George Washington’s world, a painful reality that continues to shape our society today.
The painting captures a unique vision of Mount Vernon at a particularly important moment in the nation’s history, and it required a more historically appropriate reproduction frame before its installation in a new exhibition. After reviewing other Rossiter paintings in their original frames, the curator and Wilner staff determined that the painting most likely originally had a Hudson River School style frame. The curator consulted the staff at Wilner, who reviewed their collection of 3,000 antique frames. They selected an American period frame with a fluted cove from the 1860s to be replicated. The process of recreating the frame required considerable skill from Eli Wilner’s team. The first step in the process of creating the replica frame was making a profile drawing that would be visually identical to the original, but also allow for the additional depth required to safely accommodate new glazing as well as a gilded spacer, which would lay flush with the sight edge of the frame. Next a master carpenter designed the wood substrate, shaping multiple lengths of profile from raw lumber. After these were assembled and joined, several layers of gesso were applied and sanded while box molds were created to make castings of the various ornaments. With all the elements in place, the surface was painted with a liquid clay, also referred to as bole, in preparation for water gilding. Then the gold leaf was applied with a squirrel hair brush, and the surface was burnished, sealed, and finally finished to match the period frame surface.
Because of the high volume of visitors at the museum, the Mount Vernon conservation team requested that the frame be constructed to accommodate Optium Museum Acrylic® glazing. Due to various circumstances, in part due to the regional pandemic-related shutdowns, the final fitting of the painting was delayed for several months. Mark Moloney of Turner & Associates in Sterling, VA facilitated the donation of the glazing. The Optium Museum Acrylic® protects the painting and allows it to be seen to its best advantage. The painting will be reinstalled in February 2022 in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
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