Colonial Williamsburg: Project Preview II

Andrew Jackson, Ralph E.W. Earl, c. 1836-37Another project that I’ve worked on during my time at Colonial Williamsburg was researching the life of Ralph E.W. Earl. The Foundation acquired two of his portraits last summer, which are on display now in the “Artists on the Move: Portraits for a New Nation” exhibit at the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. These portraits, depicting Thomas Claiborne Jr. and his wife Sarah Lewis King Claiborne, help Colonial Williamsburg tell the story of how America came into being by introducing sitters from Tennessee, some of the first from this region to be acquired by the Foundation.

My research did not focus on the Claibornes, though. Rather, I was tasked with researching the life of Ralph E.W. Earl, a prolific painter nicknamed the “king’s painter” or “court painter” or Andrew Jackson. Earl was the son of Ralph Earl, famous itinerant painter of the Revolutionary War era. He received his early training from his father before leaving New England to study with Benjamin West and John Trumbull in England. Upon his return, he was determined to create dramatic history paintings like West, particularly interested in depicting the heroes of the Battle of New Orleans. This interest would impact the rest of his life. Ralph E.W. Earl met Andrew Jackson in 1817, and he was immediately taken with his talent and character, inviting him to paint portrait of his family. From there, the two were virtually family. Earl married Jackson’s niece Jane Caffery, and, although she died but a year later, Earl never left the Jackson family. Throughout his career, Earl traveled alongside Jackson, painting portraits of Jackson, his family, his friends, and political allies or those he wished to win over. Ralph E.W. Earl was single handedly responsible for the depiction and image of Jackson, which would later aid in his presidential campaigns. Earl lived with Jackson at The Hermitage, joined him at the White House (where he got his own studio), and returned to the Hermitage where he lived until his death, with Jackson by his side. The two became especially close after the death of Jackson’s wife Rachel. Earl created dozens of portraits of Jackson, many of which you would recognize (such as the portrait above). However, despite this number of paintings and such a famous sitter, there has been little academic discussion on Ralph E.W. Earl, with the first significant-length book published only just this year.

Essentially, I created a timeline of Earl’s life and compiled a massive artist folder with important information on Earl so that future curators and researchers may also be able to learn about Earl’s works. I also created a document with all of the known paintings by Earl, which was over one hundred (and that was excluding those that were just attributed to him). This research I’ve done will be helpful for the future of Colonial Williamsburg as they expand their story of early America and include sitters and artists from all regions.

Colonial Williamsburg: Project Preview I

One of the projects I have been working on at Colonial Williamsburg is researching the sitter of a recently acquired painting by the Foundation. This painting is remarkable in that it was passed down in the family since the 18th century after its creation. Additionally, the painting was done by William Dering, a known artist who was working in Williamsburg in the mid 18th century. It’s exciting to find artists who worked in Williamsburg as it really helps to tell the story of the colonial city. Dering was principally a dancing master, actually teaching at the College of William and Mary for some time while he was in Williamsburg, and he also dabbled in a number of other arts that he advertised in local papers, attempting to make a living with the skills he had. There are only a few known Dering portraits and Colonial Williamsburg has a majority of these, appropriately.

In regards to the sitter, Dering painted a vibrant portrait of Joyce Armistead Booth, a woman of class and exemplary of the rising aristocracy in budding Colonial America. She was married to a merchant in Gloucester, where they lived at Belleville, a plantation home that her husband, Mordecai Booth, had inherited and acquired through his father’s skillful buying up of property in the area. My research focused on finding anything I could about Joyce and her son George, of whom there is also a portrait in the collection by Dering. Together, the two tell a story about planter aristocracy in Tidewater Virginia, about aesthetics and goals they wished to portray through portraiture. Unfortunately, very little information on Joyce and George exists and I still cannot find birth or death dates for Joyce. However, the lack of information about an individual can sometimes tell a history on its own.

Hello from Colonial Williamsburg!

My name is Caitlin and as part of my Woody Museum Studies Internship experience this summer, I am working with the curator of Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture at Colonial Williamsburg. I am an Anthropology Major with an Art History Minor. My placement with paintings was well suited to my knowledge base and interest, and, thus far, what I’ve enjoyed most about my internship is getting the opportunity to dive deep into research on the paintings in the collection, getting personal with the sitters and artists by researching their genealogy, timelines of their lives, where and when they were in a particular city and why. There are many questions involved in curatorial research, many of which remain unanswered due to lack of documentation. This is especially true for many of the paintings and artists that I have been researching, who aren’t particularly well known but still prolific and incredibly talented. Thus, much of the research is like doing a puzzle, but with only a few pieces to assemble it.

This summer has consisted of a number of varying projects in the department, rather than a single project for the entire summer. These projects provide a broad scope of everything that the curators at Colonial Williamsburg do in their job. Every few weeks I’ve been able to attend the accessions meetings with the collections staff, in which I’ve learned a lot about how accessioning objects works and the way in which a large institution makes decisions and plans for its future. We also have intern professional development tours once a week, in which all of the Colonial Williamsburg Interns meet with the curators and conservators of a department to get better acquainted with the collection. It has also been great to meet the other interns and learn about what they’re doing in their internship. In my ten weeks working with Colonial Williamsburg, I hope to gain comprehensive understanding of what a curator’s job entails, acquaint myself with Early American Art and Folk Art, and build professional skills and connections.

Hello from Winterthur!

This summer I am lucky enough to be spending ten weeks at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library as William & Mary’s Woody Intern in Museum Studies. My name is Lydia Heaton, and am a rising senior majoring in History with a (soon-to-be-declared) minor in French & Francophone Studies. Countless childhood trips to museums and historical sites sparked my history obsession, and history (and public history) classes at William & Mary have only fed the flames. Despite my love of museums I had not worked at one before I arrived at Winterthur.

I plan to spend this internship observing as much as possible about the way museums operate and the responsibilities of different staff members as I try to decide which career path to pursue going into graduate school. Acquiring practical experience in object handling, object research, and public program development are additional goals that my responsibilities here at Winterthur are perfectly tailored to meet.

Although this is a late start to my summer blogging, I have posts planned about the first few weeks that will be coming soon and I’m more than ready to start documenting my museum-related adventures! It has certainly been a whirlwind, and I’ve already learned a lot.

A bit of background…

Turned into a museum by Henry Francis du Pont (or “H.F.” as he is affectionately referred to around here) in 1951, the oldest rooms in the sprawling main house date to the 1830s.  A horticulturalist and collector from the fabulously wealthy du Pont family,  Winterthur displays H.F.’s extraordinary collection of American decorative arts within his former home as well as in traditional gallery space. The arrangement of rooms and decor is eclectic. Turn a corner and you might find antique firefighting equipment, a room of miniature furniture, an elegant bedroom, or a bowling alley converted into a lane of shop windows. Even though I’ve been here for weeks, I still find a new part of the property almost every day. I probably telegraph my intern status pretty clearly, wandering around while frowning at my 9-page map. There are also three elevators, and just to confuse you, none of them run to every floor in the house. Only the 5th floor is part of the regular tour, which gives you a sense of the collection’s size!

The White and Gold Room on the 6th Floor, which I think is my favorite bedroom in the house (even though the furniture looks like it might break if you sat in it. If I took ownership, I think I would add an armchair...)
The White and Gold Room on the 6th Floor, which I think is my favorite bedroom in the house (even though the furniture looks like it might break if you sat in it. If I took ownership, I think I would add an armchair…)

As its official title suggests, Winterthur is more than just a museum. Its library and conservation labs support museum staff, visiting scholars, and graduate programs in American Material Culture and Art Conservation taught in partnership with the University of Delaware. Rolling fields and extensive gardens surround the house itself. An avid gardener, DuPont paid meticulous personal attention to the design and maintenance of his grounds. My next blog posts will go into more detail about my first few weeks and regular duties, but I will finish with a few highlights from my time here so far…

-Care and Handling: To my mild amazement, I am now allowed to touch the objects in the collection. Getting certified in Care & Handling was something I was very excited about. After watching a series of videos and filling out a worksheet, I walked through the house with one of Winterthur’s staff members and moved a teapot in Mrs. Dupont’s bedroom from one table to another. Certification does not imply expertise, however – the real learning process is ongoing, as I watch and help the curators and other staff members work with objects.

-Enchanted Summer Day: I volunteered at a Saturday event for kids celebrating the beginning of summer. The program was centered in Winterthur’s Enchanted Forest garden, but I manned one of the craft stations in the main entry hall. The grounds were full of families, and the event was a big success! I, meanwhile, have a new addition to my resume: making paper butterfly necklaces. Potential employers reading this, I don’t mean to brag when I say that I am now capable of making a pretty fabulous butterfly out of accordion-folded paper and beads. In all seriousness, the children were absolutely adorable (so much glitter! And pink! And fairy wings!), and I had a lot of fun.

– My office: My office is tucked away in the curatorial department on the 6th floor, full of an eclectic mix of postcards and printouts left by previous occupants (cataloguers formerly occupied the space). I am already thinking about what I want to add to the collage. Nothing will be as impressive as my personal favorite, though. Above the ceramic medallion of San Pietro in Rome, a cookie tin from Rainbow Row in Charleston, four mariachi rubber ducks, and two empty wine bottles, a two-foot-long wooden pig sculpture sits on the top shelf. Why is it here? Who decided that this pig was necessary office decoration? I have absolutely no idea, and no one else seems to know either!

The office pig...
The office pig…

Week 2 Phillips Collection

Week 2 done! There’s lots of cool stuff going on. I’m really excited about the research I’ve been doing for an upcoming exhibition on Nordic art.  It feels like I’m learning more about these artists while getting faster at finding the meaningful information. Last Thursday I worked my first Phillips After 5, where the museum closes later and offers activities related to the special exhibition. The event attempts to bring in new guests and it seemed like a successful and fun way to reach out to a younger crowd. On Friday I saw the Georg Baselitz retrospective at the Hirshhorn. In my opinion, that scathing Washington Post review was right, I thought the whole show was trash. The paintings were either boring or thoughtlessly one dimensional in their anguish. I thought some of the works on paper were cool though. Anyway, over all, stuff is good.

Week 1 Phillips Collection

Hey it’s Charlie and I’ve finished over a full week at the Phillips Collection! I’m doing a bunch of different stuff and I love it so far. I’ve been primarily splitting my time between Music, Public Programs, Exhibitions. I’ve found sitting in on meetings where many different parts of the museum intersect has been illuminating for my understanding of how a museum operates. I have so much to learn but I feel like I already have a clearer idea of what curation looks like in practice. I’m most excited to continue researching works in an upcoming exhibition of Nordic paintings to make blurbs for the show’s placards.

Everyone in the office is super nice and they’re all really good at their jobs. It’s great!