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Washington: The Myths and the Man

News from Mount Vernon, 1796

Opening July 4, 2017

Following his death in 1799, George Washington seemed “above the clouds,” to paraphrase the general’s most popular biographer, Mason Locke Weems. The glorification of Washington continued for more than a century, culminating in the romanticized and popular history paintings of the Philadelphia artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). These canvases present a remarkably appealing and virtuous figure but provide limited reliable information about the “Father” of our country. This exhibition presents 13 original paintings by Ferris along with 17 historical records that reveal facts about Washington’s life and about the man behind the myth. The exhibition also features items that have rarely left the grounds of his Virginia home, Mount Vernon, such as his presidential chair and inaugural sword.

The exhibition is funded in part by the Robins Foundation. 

Page from George Washington’s Diary Enter Fullscreen More information
Page from George Washington’s Diary
Page from George Washington’s Diary (Page 6; 19 March 1790) Facsimile from Mss 5:1 W2773:1, Gift of James K. Marshall. Washington kept this diary during his first presidency, when the newly designed American government was put into operation. It provides some indication as to the issues that consumed his time. One question that continuously confronted him was how to receive foreign visitors. If the purpose was private business, he would have the visitor send letters in advance. If they arrived on state business, Washington suggested a different plan.
Flintlock pistols Enter Fullscreen More information
Flintlock pistols
Flintlock pistols (1780) On Loan from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. George Washington's correspondence includes dozens of references to purchasing pistols and to receiving them as gifts from friends. This pair of flintlock holster or traveling pistols survived in good condition until the mid-1800s, when family history maintains that a curious servant fired one.
Sword worn by Washington at his Inauguration Enter Fullscreen More information
Sword worn by Washington at his Inauguration
Sword worn by Washington at his Inauguration (about 1767) On Loan from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Eighteenth-century gentlemen and officers wore swords like this one—known as smallswords—on dress and ceremonial occasions. Washington owned several of these jewel-like, lightweight weapons. This particular one is depicted in Charles Willson Peale's 1772 portrait of Washington as a Virginia colonel (now at Washington and Lee University). Washington is also believed to have worn it when he resigned his commission as Commander in Chief in Annapolis in 1783 and when inaugurated as our nation's first president on April 30, 1789.
The Call of the Sea, 1747 Enter Fullscreen More information
The Call of the Sea, 1747
The Call of the Sea, 1747 (about 1921) Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1996.49.1, Purchased with funds provided by Lora M. Robins. The example of his brother’s service under Admiral Vernon nearly led George Washington to go to sea at age fourteen; his mother, however, opposed the idea. Ferris valued the incident because he felt that it determined the course of history. In his notes he argues that the Revolutionary War would have been lost if Washington’s determined mother had not steered him at this moment from what would have been the wrong path.
Uncommon Chair Enter Fullscreen More information
Uncommon Chair
Uncommon Chair (1790) On Loan from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. On April 17, 1790, Washington paid New York cabinetmaker Thomas Burling £7 for this ingeniously-engineered "Uncommon Chair." It combines the sleek, contemporary design of a French bergère en gondole (or barrel-back upholstered armchair) with a unique swivel mechanism made of iron that allows the circular seat to rotate on four bone rollers. Washington may have found that the chair enhanced his efficiency and reduced fatigue, because he used it throughout his presidency and for the remainder of his life. Following his return to Mount Vernon in March 1797, he placed it in his study.
Survey for Richard Barnes for a tract of 400 acres in Culpeper County Enter Fullscreen More information
Survey for Richard Barnes for a tract of 400 acres in Culpeper County
Survey for Richard Barnes for a tract of 400 acres in Culpeper County (1749) George Washington Facsimile of Mss1 St824 a 1, Gift of Mrs. Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss. This is the first of more than 190 professional surveys run by Washington. It was made in his capacity as surveyor for Culpeper County, a lucrative position almost certainly awarded to him through the influence of his wealthy Fairfax family neighbors. Throughout his life, his attention to detail and his ability to present information succinctly and to formulate clear directives allowed Washington to maintain order, even during the most chaotic periods of his public and private lives.
George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie Enter Fullscreen More information
George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie
George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie (May 29, 1754) Facsimile from Mss3 V8194 D6194 a 11, Gift of William Wilson Corcoran. To counter an anticipated massive French incursion into the Ohio in 1755, the British crown authorized Governor Dinwiddie to build an army. Washington soon became its commander. In an early engagement, his force attacked a French party and killed its commanding officer. On the fifth page of this letter Washington acknowledges the incident. This skirmish initiated the French and Indian War, which became known internationally as the Seven Years’ War.
The Courtship of Washington, 1758 Enter Fullscreen More information
The Courtship of Washington, 1758
The Courtship of Washington, 1758 (about 1917) Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1996.49.2, Purchased with funds provided by Lora M. Robins. In 1758, Martha Custis was a 27-year-old-widow who only recently had lost her husband, two of her four young children, and her father. Accordingly, her courtship by Washington was probably guided by propriety. Ferris, however, saw it as a great romance; he presents Martha as a vibrant young woman totally enthralled by the handsome and gallant officer who courts her.
News from Mount Vernon, 1796 Enter Fullscreen More information
News from Mount Vernon, 1796
News from Mount Vernon, 1796 (about 1930) Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1996.49.10, Purchased with funds provided by Lora M. Robins. Washington complained that “the duties of my public station do not allow me to pay that attention to Agriculture... that I could wish,” but in fact he was able to devote large blocks of time to farming during his presidency. In 1793 some 40% of the surviving pages written by the president are letters of instruction that he drafted for his caretakers at home.
Washington’s Inauguration at Independence Hall, 1793 Enter Fullscreen More information
Washington’s Inauguration at Independence Hall, 1793
Washington’s Inauguration at Independence Hall, 1793 (about 1913) Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1996.49.3, Purchased with funds provided by Lora M. Robins. Ferris celebrates the public approval that Washington had earned by the start of his second term. In this recreated scene, the president is depicted beside Vice President John Adams, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Secretary of War Henry Knox (who exits the coach). With Alexander Hamilton, these advisors formed a somewhat incompatible conclave that only Washington had the power and influence to control. Appropriately, the president is shown to have stepped from a carriage that might have carried a king, and the entire setting is one of affluence. The president and many of his supporters advocated a powerful central government that would protect the lifestyles of the wealthiest of their constituents. They had no intention of overturning the oligarchy of wealth and talent that Washington, on the model of the Virginia colony, had brought to the government.
Under My Own Vine and Fig Tree, 1798 Enter Fullscreen More information
Under My Own Vine and Fig Tree, 1798
Under My Own Vine and Fig Tree, 1798 (about 1910) Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1996.49.11, Purchased with funds provided by Lora M. Robins. The Virginia gentry since the seventeenth century had quoted 1 Kings when they described life under their “vine and fig tree.” This reaffirmed for them the desirability of their plantation existence. Here, Washington is shown enjoying the retirement that is the fruit of his long labors. Ferris suggests the affectionate relationship between Washington and Nelly Custis, a daughter of his deceased stepson Jacky Custis. The artist reminds his viewers that wherever Washington turned his paternal gaze he was able to bring the entity in question—his family, his plantings, and his nation—to their successful maturity.
Page from George Washington’s Diary
Page from George Washington’s Diary
Flintlock pistols
Flintlock pistols
Sword worn by Washington at his Inauguration
Sword worn by Washington at his Inaugurati
The Call of the Sea, 1747
The Call of the Sea, 1747
Uncommon Chair
Uncommon Chair
Survey for Richard Barnes for a tract of 400 acres in Culpeper County
Survey for Richard Barnes for a tract of 4
George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie
George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie
The Courtship of Washington, 1758
The Courtship of Washington, 1758
News from Mount Vernon, 1796
News from Mount Vernon, 1796
Washington’s Inauguration at Independence Hall, 1793
Washington’s Inauguration at Independence
Under My Own Vine and Fig Tree, 1798
Under My Own Vine and Fig Tree, 1798

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