Presidents’ Day: Come See Our Lincoln, Washington Artifacts

Visitors Invited to Take Part in Museum ‘Treasure Hunt’

Just after the start of the Civil War in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City, that is part of William K. Vanderbilt II’s extensive archives.

The Vanderbilt’s George Washington portrait

Visitors can see a facsimile of the letter on display in the Memorial Wing, outside the Sudan Trophy Room. On February 17-25 and on Presidents’ Day, Monday, February 19, they can also view an oil portrait of George Washington, originally thought to have been created by the renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. It will be displayed in the Vanderbilt Mansion Library.

Visitors can take part in a Museum “treasure hunt.” The Vanderbilt Curatorial Department has created an intriguing list of treasures – “the presidential, the regal and the royal” on display at the Museum, plus clues – and invites visitors of all ages to try to discover them. CLICK HERE for list. Laminated copies of the treasure list will be available for guest use.

President Lincoln wrote the letter to Mayor Wood on May 4, 1861 – two months to the day following his inauguration as President and less than one month after the start of the Civil War.

Wood (1812-1881), who built a successful shipping enterprise in New York City, served several terms in Congress and was mayor of New York for two terms, 1854-58 and 1860-62. He wrote the letter to Lincoln shortly after the Fort Sumter attack, offering him whatever military services he, as mayor, could provide. Lincoln’s reply to Wood was in gratitude for his offer of assistance.

Excerpt:

In the midst of my various and numerous other duties I shall consider in what way I can make your services at once available to the country, and agreeable to you –

Your Obt. [Obedient] Servant

A. Lincoln

President Lincoln’s 1861 letter to New York City Mayor Fernando Wood

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “We do not know how this letter came to be in Mr. Vanderbilt’s possession. Perhaps it was originally the property of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was an acquaintance of Mayor Wood, and it was passed down through the Vanderbilt family.”

The Vanderbilt’s framed oil portrait of George Washington, though unsigned and undated, was believed to have been painted by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), widely considered one of America’s foremost portrait artists.

“The closest estimate is that the painting was made sometime in the 1800s,” Gress said. Washington died in 1799, she said, and added that portraits were often painted to commemorate an anniversary or a death.

Stuart produced portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six Presidents of the United States. Stuart painted a number of Washington portraits. The most celebrated is known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796), and one large-scale version of it hangs in the East Room of the White House.

Stuart’s best-known work is an unfinished portrait of Washington begun in 1796 and sometimes called “The Athenaeum.” This image of Washington’s head and shoulders is a familiar one to Americans—it has appeared for more than a century on the U.S. one-dollar bill

The Vanderbilt’s Washington portrait, found in the basement of the Suffolk County Welfare Department Home in Yaphank, was restored and presented to the Vanderbilt Museum in 1951. While the artist did not sign the work, a specialist reported that year that the painting was an authentic Gilbert Stuart.

“The closest estimate is that the painting was made sometime in the 1800s,” Gress said. Washington died in 1799, she said, and added that portraits were often painted to commemorate an anniversary or a death.

In 1981, however, two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art studied the portrait and advised the Board of Trustees that the work was not created by Stuart. As a result, the portrait, oil on panel and measuring 21.25 by 33.5 inches, is described in the archival records as “After Gilbert Stuart.”

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