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Presidents Day: Vanderbilt Exhibits Lincoln Letter, Washington Portrait

The Vanderbilt’s George Washington portrait
Vanderbilt Museum photos

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum will display two Presidential artifacts for Presidents Week – an oil portrait of George Washington and a letter to the mayor of New York City from Abraham Lincoln. The pieces will be on view in the main hallway of the Vanderbilt Museum Nursery Wing from now through the end of February.

President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City, just after the start of the Civil War in 1861. The portrait originally was thought to have been created by the renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart.

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.

President Lincoln’s letter to Mayor Fernando Wood

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

The Vanderbilt Museum Curatorial Department has no record of how this letter came to be in Mr. Vanderbilt’s possession. Originally, it may have been the property of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was an acquaintance of Mayor Wood, and could have been 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.

Stuart produced portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six Presidents of the United States. He 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.

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.” The curators’ closest estimate was that the painting was made sometime in the 1800s.

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