WINTERTHUR, Del. (AP) – Among the rolling hills of Delaware’s “Chateau Country,” a group of guests from Manhattan is being welcomed with open arms at the Winterthur Museum.
The exhibition titled Faces of a New Nation: American Portraits of the 18th and Early 19th Centuries from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opens Saturday, July 25, at Winterthur. The collection of 39 paintings will remain on display through Jan. 24, 2010.
The exhibit showcases portraits by some of the most famous artists of the era, including John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale.
Winterthur is the sole venue for the paintings, which had to be moved to make way for renovations to the Metropolitan’s American Wing, a multiyear construction project scheduled for completion in 2011.
Rather than put the paintings in storage with other works, officials at the Met decided to send them to Winterthur, which has a long history of collaboration with the New York museum.
Morrison Heckscher, chairman of the Met’s American Wing, is a member of Winterthur’s board of trustees.
“We decided to do this for Winterthur, and only then did other people come calling,” said exhibit curator Carrie Rebora Barratt of the Met’s Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, adding that idea of adding other venues was rejected.
“It’s expensive, it’s difficult and it’s hard on the paintings,” she explained.
To complement the exhibit, Winterthur officials have developed a special tour to highlight their museum’s own collection of American portraits.
Visitors to the exhibit are greeted in bold fashion with an imposing, life-size portrait from 1789 of Elijah Boardman, a wealthy Connecticut dry goods merchant by artist Ralph Pearl. While sporting a wry smile, Boardman appears stiff and severe, showing off his inventory of fine fabrics and collection of leather-bound books.
“In a way, he’s kind of the poster boy for the exhibition,” said Rebora Barratt, adding that the subjects can generally be described as the “mercantile elite” who helped lay the economic foundation of the nascent republic.
While most of the subjects commissioned portraits of themselves and their families, some of the works, such as Samuel F.B. Morse’s melancholy portrait of his daughter, Susan, were done with exhibitions in mind. Morse’s 1836 portrait, the last he did before putting down the brush and moving on to develop the telegraph, shows his daughter staring forlornly into space, seemingly waiting for a muse to stir the pencil in her hand into action on the blank page she holds.
Without question, the most familiar image in the exhibit is Stuart’s 1795 portrait of President George Washington, a so-called Vaughn-type portrait similar to the iconic image on the dollar bill.
Stuart’s work is displayed next to a portrait of Washington from the same time period by Swedish artist Adolph Ulrich Wertmuller. While Stuart offers a naturalistic image of the aging president, Wertmuller provides a crisper, more idealized portrait, with finer details.
Lest anyone wonder, Rebora Barratt noted, the first president of the United States didn’t have dandruff. Those white flecks on his collar in Wertmuller’s portrait are hair powder.
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