“I find that some museums know a good deal more about the histories of their things than I do about ours; therefore I want to get family histories whenever possible.” Henry Francis du Pont wrote this to a dealer, Winsor White, in 1954 shortly after Winterthur Museum opened to the public. For curators, the history of ownership of objects can be important to know for many reasons; it can help determine the authenticity of an object, or it can help to situate and identify the artist or craftsperson that made it, for example. But sometimes the history of ownership leads us to famous (or infamous) people. Here are just a few examples from the Winterthur collection.
George Washington sat for many artists, and his appearance in their portraits varies greatly. So what did he really look like? Most people probably expect that Washington looked like he does on our dollar bills—the image taken from the famous portrait by Gilbert Stuart; however, the likeness that his own family felt was the best was that which John Trumbull painted in 1790. Although Washington did not enjoy posing for artists, he sat for Trumbull at least 14 times between February and July of that year; on July 8, Washington noted in his diary that he “sat from 9 o’clock till after 10 for Mr. Jno. Trumbull, who was drawing a portrait of me at full length which he intended to present to Mrs. Washington.” The gift was much appreciated; it hung in the New Room at Mount Vernon and then descended through the family, first to Martha’s granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, then to her son Edmund Law Rogers, then to his daughter Charlotte Plate Rogers, and finally to her son Edmund Law Rogers Smith before being sold to du Pont.
Perhaps a more unexpected provenance is associated with a magnificent early classical-style sideboard and original matching knife boxes, attributed to the celebrated Philadelphia cabinetmaker Joseph B. Barry, who made them between 1808 and 1815.
Researched by former Winterthur curator Don Fennimore, who also orchestrated its acquisition by the museum, the history of ownership can be traced back through many generations of the Gratz family, prominent members of Philadelphia’s Jewish community. Perhaps the most famous member of this family was Rebecca Gratz (1781–1869), who founded many philanthropic and educational organizations in Philadelphia and who is said to have been one of the most beautiful women in America (born out by her portrait, painted by Thomas Sully in the collection of the Rosenbach Museum and Library). It has also been claimed that she was the model for the heroine, also named Rebecca, of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. The sideboard and knife boxes were owned by either Rebecca (who never married) or more likely her sister Rachel, in whose family they descended. But it is the more recent history of ownership that is more surprising. Winterthur purchased the sideboard and knife boxes at auction from the estate of the celebrated pop artist Andy Warhol. After fame had brought him great riches, Warhol purchased an elegant six-story townhouse in the upper east side of New York, which he proudly and loudly proclaimed had formerly belonged to “somebody’s WASP granny.”
A compulsive shopper, Warhol filled his house with an enormous collection of furniture, paintings, jewelry, toys, folk art, American Indian artifacts, and sometimes just junk that struck his fancy. What this eclectic mix of objects had in common was their strong, visual appeal to the eye of an artist. The strong, sculptural quality of the sideboard is clear to anyone who sees it.
And, finally, sometimes the history of ownership can be just a bit obscure. Museum records carefully document that these paste knee buckles were once owned by Philip Barton Key (1757–1815), a politician and a judge whose main claim to fame was that he was Francis Scott Key’s uncle. Go figure.
Post by Linda Eaton, John L. and Marjorie P. McGraw Director of Collections and Senior Curator of Textiles, Winterthur