Sunday, March 27, 2011

“Washington in the Garden at Mount Vernon”

“Washington in the Garden at Mount Vernon” by Howard Pyle (1896)

What was on the mind of Howard Pyle - then in the midst of illustrating Woodrow Wilson’s biography of George Washington - 115 years ago today?
...I would represent Washington in his rural life at Mount Vernon. I am informed that the box-walk at Mount Vernon is now very much as it was in Washington’s day. It is very picturesque, and it would be interesting to place Washington in it as a setting.

Perhaps a good arrangement of this idea would be in the visit of Lafayette to Mount Vernon. I would represent Washington as directing the old negro gardener in the setting out of some shrub or small tree, and Lafayette standing at a little distance looking on with a certain remote dignity, Mrs Washington, perhaps, standing with him. In this way we might not only represent the way Washington was sought after in his retirement by great folk, such as Lafayette, but also indicate the idea of his Cincinnatus character....
So Pyle wrote to Wilson on March 27, 1896. As you can see, he altered his concept by leaving Lafayette and Martha Washington out of the painting, which he completed sometime in April. The reproduction above comes from “First in Peace” by Woodrow Wilson (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, September 1896). When Pyle exhibited the painting the following year, he described it in the catalogues in this old-fashioned way:
Here we behold the great Soldier dwelling, Cincinnatus-like, amid those humble and bucolic Joys he held so dear, and to which he was so glad to return after the distracting Clamor of War. Of the Gardener to whom Washington is talking, the ingenious Professor Wilson says, “He agreed with Philip Barter that if he would serve him faithfully as gardener and keep sober at all other times, he would allow him four dollars at Christmas with which to be drunk four days and four nights, etc.”
The original 21 x 15" oil on board - painted in part color - belongs to the Boston Public Library.

And here is the garden from a different point of view, as seen in a turn-of-the-century postcard...

UPDATED June 1, 2011: Alas, Pyle’s low, snaking boxwoods are incorrect (though, in his defense, he was going on the limited information available to him at that time). The History Blog points out in a new post that Washington’s garden was a much different animal.

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