January 20, 2015
Washington’s Personal Seal, Gilbert Stuart Portrait Donated to the Art Museums of Colonial WilliamsburgWILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- A pair of treasures from the lifetime of America’s patriarch – a George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart and one of the first president’s personal watch seals – are now among the collections of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg thanks to prominent Foundation benefactors.
The Stuart painting is based on his iconic yet unfinished “Athenaeum” portrait, familiar as the inspiration for the image on the $1 bill. The work was donated recently by Douglas N. Morton and Marilyn L. Brown in honor of Colonial Williamsburg Chairman Emeritus and former President and CEO Colin G. Campbell and his wife Nancy N. Campbell.
The citrine seal bears an ornate engraving of Washington’s coat of arms, personally commissioned in 1771 and ordered set in a gold socket. A gift to Colonial Williamsburg by Carolyn and Michael McNamara, the seal is visible hanging from Washington’s watch chain in another famous painting, Charles Willson Peale’s 1776 portrait commemorating the liberation of Boston.
The two are on display in the new accessions hall at the entrance to the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
“The Washington family motto was Exitus Acta Probat, or ‘The Ends Justify the Means,’ and his successes alone merit his place first among our nation’s founders,” said Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President and CEO Mitchell B. Reiss. “The depth of Washington’s heroism, however, comes from his individual acts, and the judgment and integrity that guided his hand – and America – through the tenuous years of our nation’s founding.”
“Williamsburg hosted Washington throughout his life, as a lawmaker, and perhaps most importantly as his headquarters before the victory at Yorktown,” Reiss said. “His is just one of the many rich stories we tell here at Colonial Williamsburg, and these generous gifts will engage our guests and illuminate Washington for generations to come. The Stuart portrait in particular is a fitting tribute to the Campbells’ great contributions to the Foundation and region.”
Washington sat three times for Stuart paintings that include the standing, civilian-attired Lansdowne Portrait of 1796. The same year First Lady Martha Washington hired Stuart to paint portraits of herself and her husband. Both are unfinished and are known as the “Athenaeum portraits” in reference to their 150 years of ownership by the Boston Athenaeum.
With demand high for portraits of the president, Stuart convinced the Washingtons to let him hold onto the original, which he used to paint roughly 75 additional portraits, among them the newly acquired version. Laura Barry, the Foundation’s Juli Grainger Curator of Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, found that the painting’s paper trail begins with its 1908 public sale in Philadelphia to Joseph Right.
“Nancy and I are grateful for Marilyn and Doug’s friendship and their continued generosity to the Foundation. We are humbled that they would honor us with a gift of such a rare piece of America’s history,” Colin Campbell said. “We look forward to enjoying this remarkable work, along with the Foundation’s extensive collections, on our regular visits to the Art Museums.”
The watch seal bears Washington’s familiar coat of arms – two bars beneath three stars or “mullets” – surrounded by a cartouche and mantling, all engraved in reverse on a faceted piece of golden quartz. Washington personally ordered the seal in a letter to Robert Cary & Company in London, providing his own gold alloy socket as a setting. The socket’s origin is unknown, but it could have been fabricated by the Williamsburg silversmith James Craig, with whom Washington previously did business.
Men of letters like Washington typically used heavy-duty wood- or ivory-handled desk seals to close correspondence. A seal like the McNamara’s gift was an expensive piece of jewelry worn to communicate status. Watch seals, later known as fobs, were not meant for regular use with sealing wax.
The seal was found in a jewelry box belonging to Ann Waller, who died in 1990. Waller was a direct descendant of many prominent Virginians, including statesman and close Washington family confidant John Marshall. Colonial Williamsburg Curator of Metals Janine E. Skerry believes that following Washington’s death, his widow likely gave Marshall the seal as a gift that was then passed down from generation to generation.
After its discovery, the seal was purchased by an individual buyer and then acquired by the McNamaras for presentation to Colonial Williamsburg.
“There are more than 70,000 pieces in our collections and each tells a compelling story, but items like these, along with Peale’s ‘Washington at Princeton.’ place our guests in almost direct contact with the man and his time,” said Ronald L. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg vice president of collections, conservation and museums and Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator. “Without the commitment and generosity of benefactors like Marilyn, Doug and the McNamaras, we simply could not provide that kind of experience.”
The McNamaras, of Williamsburg, are longtime Foundation supporters and members of the Raleigh Tavern Society and Friends of Collections who have loaned items from their collection to the Art Museums. They also fully funded “A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South,” a landmark, multi-institutional exhibition including furniture, fine art, ceramics, metals and textiles at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum through May 2019.
Morton and Brown of Englewood, Colorado are longtime supporters of Colonial Williamsburg and lifetime members of its Raleigh Tavern Society; they also belong to Colonial Williamsburg’s W.A.R. Goodwin Society. They have made gifts totaling $2.3 million to the $600 million Campaign for History and Citizenship, including support for the Art Museums and for the Foundation’s American Indian Initiative.
Colin Campbell served as Colonial Williamsburg’s president and CEO from April 2000 until last year. He was elected a member of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees in 1989 and served as its chairman from 1998 to February 2008. From 1988 until July of 2000 he was president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and previously he was president of Wesleyan University for 18 years beginning in 1967. Nancy Campbell is chair emerita of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was recently named chair of James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia.
The Campbells are the 12th and most recent recipients of Colonial Williamsburg’s highest award for public service, leadership and stewardship, the Churchill bell.
Reiss served as president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland from 2010 until last year. The school was chartered in 1782 in honor of George Washington, who contributed 50 gold guineas to its establishment and served on its Board of Visitors and Governors until his election as president in 1789.
The Campaign for History and Citizenship, which entered its public phase last year, includes a goal of $40 million toward the first major expansion of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg since the 1985 opening of their current location behind the Public Hospital of 1773. The expansion of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum calls for 8,000 square feet of added exhibition space, an improved environmental control system, and a new façade and entranceway on South Nassau Street.
Barbara Rust Brown