The story begins when the National Park Service dedicated the museum building at Morristown National Historical Park to support the Ford Mansion or “The Headquarters” on February 22, 1937, Washington’s Birthday, and a year later, publicly opened the museum – again on February 22 - with artifacts previously owned by the Washington Association and now put on display under the auspices of the National Park Service.
Mounted on the wall in the museum was a large and elaborate wall safe. Within the open doors was the gift of a Gilbert Stuart Athenaeum portrait of George Washington left to the Washington Association by an original founder, William Van Vleck Lidgerwood. The painting had been purchased by Lidgerwood at a Christie, Manson and Woods auction in England on April 23, 1887 from the estate of James T. Gibson-Craig, Esq. Mr. Gibson-Craig’s very valuable and extensive library collection was auctioned later in June that year.
Upon Mr. Lidgerwood’s death, he left the painting to his niece Miss Mary V. V. Lidgerwood who presented it to the Association in 1919.
Each night the doors of the safe clanked shut to protect the painting from theft. In the morning, the safe was opened and the public was once again invited to gaze at the painting.
Stuart’s “Unfinished” Washington Portrait at the Ford Museum, Morristown NHP
Soon after the portrait was hung in the safe, the really observant visitor began to notice something different, something changing in this popular portrait. Behind the portrait, growths or maybe even “ears,” began to appear behind General Washington. 1 It is not recorded that the more conservative members of the Washington Associated suspected a plot on the part of the Jefferson - loving FDR and his National Park Service, but, after all, the Father of his country never had rabbit’s ears when they were in charge! 2 The Park Service was also alarmed. The ears were becoming more and more apparent each day. Experts were consulted and the mystery was finally solved. Well, maybe.
Gilbert Stuart’s Three Paintings of George Washington
There were three paintings that General Washington personally posed for with Gilbert Stuart. From these three came some 104 “original” paintings by Stuart. The first pose, the Vaughan portrait, painted probably in 1795, was named after the first owner, Samuel Vaughan, an American merchant living in London. Vaughan's name became associated with some seventeen versions.
The second was the full length portrait known as the Lansdowne. In April 1796, Senator William Bingham, Pennsylvania, on behalf of his wife, gave the painting to William Petty, the second Earl of Shelburne and who later became the first Marques of Lansdowne. Petty was a sympathizer to the American cause of independence and spoke out in Parliament on the new country’s behalf. The painting was consigned to the honorable Rufus King, Minister to Great Britain, to present this portrait to the Marques. 3 Another of these “Lansdowne” paintings was rescued by Dollie Madison right before the British had dinner in the White House and then burned the home during the War of 1812.
But the third painting is the most famous, the most copied and the one in the “wall safe.” This is a painting commissioned by Mrs. Martha Washington of her husband, the “General.” Stuart was to paint both the President and Mrs. Washington as two separate portraits. In this portrait, while Washington had the famous “badly fitting” set of false teeth and had a constrained expression about his mouth, the paintings so pleased Stuart that in the middle of the sessions he approached Washington and asked if he could keep both portraits and leave them unfinished. He did promise a replica of the paintings for Mrs. Washington.
Stuart went on to finish some seventy copies of this painting owned first by the Boston “Athenaeum” gallery also known as the unfinished Washington. 4 The painting became the standard, the accepted and true likeness of Washington. Stuart, himself, called this painting his hundred-dollar bill for whenever he needed money he made a copy and always found a ready buyer. Towards the end of his life he could copy at least two of these portraits a day.
On Washington’s Birthday, 1895, the Sons of the American Revolution presented 250 photogravures of this painting to NYC Board of Education to post one in each school in New York City. General Porter, on behalf of the Sons of the American Revolution, said, It has been beautifully said of the painting that it is the finest personification of purity, truth, and goodness to be found on canvas. It is believed that in our schools it will teach a valuable lesson in patriotism. Patriotism must be learned as we learn to read and spell. To inculcate in the minds of modern culture of love of country requires education. Man learns little in this world by precept, but mostly by example and experience. 5
The Lady Behind (Underneath) General Washington
John Wilfred Dawson in 1940 led the efforts to conserve the painting and looked for the cause of the “ears.” Dawson found that a small piece of paper was glued to the rear of the portrait that established the provenance and noted:
General Washington Painted
When the painting was fully examined, and the stretcher lifted from the canvas, hidden on the lower margin of the canvas, was a five inch long piece of paper that had written upon it in large letters, the words, “Mrs. King,” 6
There are stories of how anyone critical of Stuart’s art would see their project terminated and the unfinished canvas taken upstairs to the “garret” to later be used again. When General Knox offered a suggestion on his portrait, Stuart responded that he would make the painting the door on his pig sty. Once he delineated a handsome woman who was a great talker. When the picture was almost done, she looked at it and exclaimed: "Why, Mr. Stuart, you have painted me with my mouth open!" He replied: "Madam, your mouth is always open" and he refused to finish the picture. And another young lady stood up and went behind Stuart as he painted and gave her thoughts on how to finish the painting, and Stuart immediately, despite her tears, directed the canvas to the attic. When "a gentleman of estimable character and no small consequence in his own eyes" objected that Stuart's portrait of the rich but homely widow he had married did not make her beautiful, the artist cried: "What damned business is this of a portrait painter! You bring him a potato and expect he will paint a peach." 7 With a supply of unfinished paintings in the attic, as Stuart needed some cash, the slightly used canvas was brought down, turned around and a new hundred dollar bill painting begun. These “ears” were really shoulders!
X-Ray of “Under” Portrait
Dawson upon his examination felt that the painting was done of this Mrs. King between 1803 and 1806 while Stuart was either in Washington or on his way to Boston. As the under painting was not thoroughly dry before the Washington painting was added, this caused the cracking and in some cases the spreading of the paint, Dawson felt then, that the Washington portrait was added during the same period. An x-ray of the painting revealed the likeness of a woman, holding a large cross on her lap. This x-ray was shown to the public in an article in the Newark Evening News revisiting the discovery on February 22, 1962, with the title The Woman Behind Washington. 8
Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. King
|Mr. Rufus King||Mary Alsop King|
Mr. Rufus King
by Stuart - 1819
Replica of Mrs. King
by Trumbull - 1820
Almost twenty years later, in 1819, Mr. King arranged for Gilbert Stuart to paint a set of portraits of his wife and himself. His portrait still exists, however, that of his wife is missing. If Mr. Dawson’s idea that the painting was done as early as 1803 or 1806 is correct, we might conclude that the canvas started on Mrs. King was sent to the garret for some reason. However, a more likely reason for the unfinished portrait is that it is later and that Mrs. King died in Jamaica, New York on June 5, 1819 and ended the session. This also was the time that Gilbert Stuart produced his hundred dollar bill paintings and therefore had reused the canvas while it was still wet.
Dawson quotes George C. Mason, in his 1879 work, The Life and Works of Gilbert Stuart, on page 210: “It is said there was also a portrait of Mrs. King but I have not been able to trace it out.” Mason also says, “The King family seems to have no knowledge of such a portrait.” This, Dawson says, leads him to suspect the Mrs. King died before Stuart completed her portrait, or, if painted at an earlier date, that he had become dissatisfied with the portrait, partly erased it and sent it to the attic. 10
The King’s son, wanting a picture of his mother, Mary upon her death, had John Trumbull make a “replica” of his 1800 painting, this time three-quarter size and without the small cross Mrs. King had worn around her neck in the original portrait. Both Trumbull paintings bear a strong resemblance to the 1940 x-ray.
The work had crossed and recrossed the Atlantic Ocean, and had held up well under the custody of the First National Iron Bank in Morristown and the Washington Association. But that fancy wall safe was its undoing. Closed every night, the portrait was plunged into a changed and detrimental atmosphere which caused Mrs. King’s arms to begin to show through the overpainting. The cure was simple: never close the safe doors at night. So, they were not again closed as long as the safe remained in the Museum, and the rabbit ears ceased growing.” 11
The Athenaeum head was left unfinished by Stuart, who retained it during his lifetime. He kept the portrait done from life in order to make numerous replicas (some 70 in the bust-length format) from it. There were, of course, alterations in the replicas, some subtle and some more pronounced. These might have been due to haste or to other factors not now known. The costume, hardly indicated in the original life portrait, was continually reinvented by the artist.
The difference in appearance may more aptly be called weariness than aging, and it would have been a relatively easy matter for Stuart to alter the portrait to suggest this change, without requiring a sitting. There is a perceptible softening of the modeling, for instance. The president’s eyes seem more shadowed and his face less fleshy–-in short, somewhat gaunt–-despite the apple-red cheeks that Stuart often favored for his sitters. For this replica, Stuart embellished the costume with a fluidly improvised shirtfront, like liquid lace.
Gilbert Stuart is undoubtedly one of America’s greatest portrait painters. Having trained in Europe, he returned to this country with the prospect of greater financial gain. Known for his elegant and fashionable portrait style, he painted war heroes, socialites, and prominent families. But it was George Washington whom he most sought to paint, and it was his Washington portraits that provided him with the greatest financial reward. 12