Adventures in the Museum: Other Projects and Duties

Most of my blog posts up until this point have been about specific large projects, and my days with Registration and Public Programs. However, I spent 3 days every week working in the curatorial department and my duties there were extremely varied. Working on the doll project fell under the umbrella of my curatorial duties, as did formatting images for Winterthur’s NEA grant to digitize paper items in the collection. However, many other projects (some long, some taking just half an hour) also occupied my time.

For instance, I researched and compiled fact sheets about two of the rooms in the house in preparation for a room committee meeting. The Chinese Parlor and Marlboro Room are both on the regular tour (and have been since the museum opened). This means that there was lots of information to sort through. Writing these summaries was an excellent exercise in editing and deciding which facts were most pertinent to the committee’s current agenda. Another important function that these write-ups served was to document recent additions or changes to the room. Ultimately, because both the Chinese Parlor and the Marlboro Room were “Frozen Rooms,” their contents had not changed much.

The Chinese Parlor is papered with beautiful, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper dating from the 18th century.
The Chinese Parlor is papered with beautiful, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper dating from the 18th century.
Marlboro Room, view 1
Marlboro Room, view 2
Marlboro Room, view 2
The Marlboro Room, view 1







However, looking through old inventories from the 1960s and comparing them to the current catalogue records for the rooms did reveal a few shifts in the layout, and I got the chance to learn more about the history of the mansion while I searched! I particularly enjoyed reading parts of HF’s daughter’s memoirs, in which she reminisced about the parties her family used to hold in the house. Winterthur still hosts lots of weddings on the weekends, and wandering the grounds in the evenings and seeing wedding guests always made me think about what it would have been like to arrive at Winterthur as a guest back when the estate was a private residence.

Additionally, I always looked forward to seeing the graduate fellow approach my desk- that usually meant field trip time! I helped them put objects away in the store room, search for items to show visiting scholars, and push trolleys. It turned out that trolley driving is quite the art, especially when working through a maze of doors and delicate items. I even accompanied one of the graduate fellows as she installed a bodice for display inside the house. Tragically, there are not a lot of intact colonial-era dresses in the collection because HF bought dresses to use the skirts as upholstery (this was not unusual at the time). What this means is that they have a sofa, and then they have the bodice that goes with it…


Reuniting the bodice and skirt...
Reuniting the bodice and skirt…









Doll photo shoot…

One of my favorite projects this summer involved Winterthur’s doll collection. With about 50 dolls in the collection, only half had photographs in the online catalog. I took photographs of the other half, and then I learned how to add metadata to the images and edit them in Photoshop. Now the cataloguer shots that I took are available to the public on Winterthur’s online catalogue, which was exciting to see.

The second part of this project involved distilling several papers written by Winterthur graduate students into descriptions for the catalogue. This job had the double benefit of updating the detail and accuracy of the catalogue entries and teaching me more about doll history.

Taking the photographs was also a wonderful way for me to familiarize myself with the dolls Winterthur owns and as well as doll-making history and styles. The reference books that I looked at from Winterthur’s library and the student papers that I read about certain dolls stayed far more firmly in my mind with the framework provided by actually handling these objects.

I find dolls to be a particularly compelling because they give a concrete connection to children from the past, and how they might have played. I think that my favorites were the “Grödner Tal” dolls, a type of wooden doll with painted features manufactured in Germany in the 19th century and exported for sale to other parts of Europe and North America. However, several of the larger dolls with cloth bodies also reminded me a lot of modern American Girl dolls- children’s preferences have not changed much over the centuries!

Doll, 1964.1362, Winterthur Museum                                                       My favorite Grödner Tal doll

One of my favorite parts of working at Winterthur was the fact that whenever we went into the storage rooms to get an object, it felt like a treasure hunt- I had no idea what I would find when I lifted a lid. However, I will admit that uncovering several of the dolls gave me a bit of a shock (they were slightly scary for children’s toys!).

1958.1137 Doll, view 1
Doll, 1958.1137, Europe (1775-1850), Winterthur Museum These arms are extremely lifelike, the head is… less so
2000.0074.001 A Doll, view 1
Doll, 2000.0074.001, Winterthur Museum                          While the arms are mildly terrifying, this doll really reminded me of an American Girl doll with its elaborate wardrobe (she has knitted stays, a chemise, a petticoat, and a dress).

(Note: While I took all the photographs included in this blog post, I sourced them from Winterthur’s online catalog, and the copyright belongs to the Winterthur Museum)


The Order of the Spoons

Curtains weren’t the only thing we moved this summer- I am now proud to say that I have been inducted to what we all jokingly dubbed the “Order of the Spoons.”

A bit of background information is possibly in order.

Winterthur possesses a large study collection of silver spoons (around 9,000 pieces), built up over the years into an extremely useful resource for scholars. However, the storage situation for many of these spoons was less than ideal. Hundreds, for instance, were jumbled together in small boxes (making it nearly impossible to find a single spoon quickly). New cabinets for the spoon collection were purchased and moved into metal storage, but then Vivien and Rachel (along with myself and any other graduate fellows or assistants that they could borrow for several hours at a time) had to move thousands of silver spoons into these new cabinets. First, we had to line all the drawers with ethafoam.

Spoons ready to be moved
Spoons ready to be moved

To make matters more complicated, most of the spoons had 3 numbers written on them: 2 that we ignored, and one accession number attached with a paper tag. Without 3 people, the process became extremely slow. With 3, however, our system went something like this…

Person 1:  Take spoons out of their tray or box, arrange on a table in accession-number order. Depending on how many spoons were in the box, this could take quite some time (particularly as I never seemed to be able to judge how much room I needed on the table and would sometimes be blindsided by a series of 6 or 7 spoons all in the same set).

Person 2: Arrange spoons in the new drawer, placing them in alternating directions and making sure that the spoon lay “comfortably.” All the while, they read out the accession numbers of the spoons they are placing.

Person 3: Records the new drawer location of the spoon in question on a huge online spreadsheet.

We periodically switched jobs, so that no one got too tired of one task. It was pretty amusing how excited we all got when there was an occasional silver item that wasn’t a spoon- we would all try to guess what some of the stranger ones were before looking them up in the catalogue. Some of our favorites included: a boatswain’s whistle, a salt sifter, and a commemorative Salem spoon with a witch riding a broomstick!

1998.0004.1740 whistle underside
Silver boatswain’s whistle, 1998.0004.1740, Winterthur Museum                                                                                           The temptation to blow this whistle was difficult to resist!
1998.0004.1242 Silver Sifter upper surface
Salt Sifter, 1998.0004.1242, Winterthur Museum
Souvenir spoon, 1998.0004.1448, Winterthur Museum                                                                                       This was my absolute favorite spoon! The broomstick handle is adorable, and apparently the spoon was made in the late 19th-century. I think it is fascinating that even in the 1890s people were buying souvenir spoons!


Curtain Storage: Phase 2

Phase 2 involved actually clearing out Curtain Storage II. The days that I worked on this part of the project, I joined a team composed of interns and staff members from registration and textile conservation. We needed as many hands as possible to fold up the curtains, because they were so large (and some were quite delicate).

First, textile conservation took down a tester curtain and took it back to their lab to figure out the best kinds of supports to make for the rest of the curtains, and approximate how many boxes we would need to make (and order) for the rest of the room. Before the folding could start, I helped make countless “snakes” from batting and stockinette, which we then inserted every time the fabric folded or pleated so that sharp creases would not form and lead to rips.

Curtain storage emptying out- you can see the copper frames here that used to hold curtains.
Curtain storage emptying out- you can see the copper frames here that used to hold curtains.

With multiple teams folding, making boxes, and stuffing snakes, the storage rooms were a whirlwind of paper and fabric. One of the most fun and challenging hangings that I helped pack had a curved arch of fabric with curtains hanging from each side, like a very fancy children’s puppet theater. Ultimately the hanging required 8 fabric snakes, one supporting each gather in the fabric!

The bed hanging in question: It looked like a puppet theater hanging up, and a little bit like a Disney prince's cloak folded up in the box! You can see all 8 snakes poking out from the folds at the edge of the fabric.
The bed hanging in question: It looked like a puppet theater hanging up, and a little bit like a Disney prince’s cloak folded up in the box! You can see all 8 snakes poking out from the folds at the edge of the fabric.

Curtain valences also lined the walls of Curtain Storage II, and needed removal. Almost all of them went into Curtain Storage I, where the walls now bristle with every style of curtain valence imaginable. Helping remove them from the walls and re-install them next door was slightly difficult, however, because Winterthur uses a lot of what seem to be old DIY snap tape. A piece of ribbon with snaps sewn into it at slightly irregular intervals kept many of the valences attached to the walls, and metal snaps had been sewn into many of the valences as well (this was many decades ago, and not very good for the fabric!). Unfortunately, this meant that when we tried to match up the snaps on the wall and the snaps on the valences, they didn’t always line up. Attempting to find an arrangement that put minimal stress on the valence while also keeping it on the wall was sometimes quite a challenge.

Finally, though, it was “curtains for curtains,” as one of the textile interns joked. It turns out that you start coming up with lots of bad curtain-related puns when that is all you have been thinking about for 8 hours. In all seriousness, though, it was a huge undertaking to empty Curtain Storage II, and I really enjoyed getting the chance to work with and learn from the textile conservators. While the curtain storage project continued after “phase 2,” the next part of the project involved contractors who came in to prepare the room for shelving and to actually install the shelving. I was not involved with either of these stages.




Curtain Storage: Phase 1

A 175-room mansion has a lot of windows, and those windows all need curtains. In fact, for many of the more public rooms, HF duPont commissioned multiple sets of curtains and matching slipcovers for different seasons. The practical implications of these stylistic choices?Winterthur owns a lot of curtains.

I became personally familiar with many of these curtains and valences this summer, during the day per week that I helped the registration department. Winterthur is currently embarking on a 10 year-long project aimed at greatly improving the quality and accessibility of their collections storage. One of the biggest projects this summer was to install new shelving in Curtain Storage II.

Some background information might be required to explain why this project was such a mammoth task. Winterthur has two adjacent storage rooms for curtains, both containing dozens of hanging curtains on specially-made copper racks. The curtains hang from the ceiling, and because of this the storage room is two-stories high. The rooms are both extremely impressive, stuffed to the brim with an eclectic assortment of fabrics. Because curtain storage is a popular place to take behind the scenes tours, the plan was to keep the outermost room (Curtain Storage I)  in its original configuration. However, hanging places stress on the curtain fabric, and every time someone visits the rooms (which is frequently), the curtains are all exposed to light. To solve this problem, the curtains in Curtain Storage II were taken down and carefully packed in textile storage boxes to be placed on new shelving.

Curtain Storage I
Curtain Storage I

Phase 1. The Hagley Move

In order to put in shelves, we needed a completely empty room. Workmen, electricians, power tools, and moving shelves are not conducive to a safe environment for delicate textiles! There was not enough room to put all the inventory of Curtain Storage I in any other part of the museum. Solving this problem, Winterthur moved some of its other textiles (mostly slipcovers and curtains not in heavy rotation) into temporary storage at Hagley, a nearby museum. The extra space could then hold curtains while the shelving went in.

First, an inventory had to be taken of the items being sent. I arrived just as registration was finishing up the inventory process, but I did help Devon (one of the registration assistants) with a little bit of inventorying, digging in folds of fabric to find well-hidden accession numbers and holding out swathes of fabric to be photographed.

After inventorying, the boxes had to be packed up for moving. I spent one full day helping pack up textile boxes in plastic bags that Jesse (the graduate student project manager) crimped with a terrifying melting tool that looked like an industrial hair-straightener. The finished product looked a lot like a cereal bag.

Another day, I wrapped most of the trolleys being moved to Hagley in plastic wrap. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that the plastic wrap almost defeated me- I was exhausted by the end of the morning! I accomplished my task in an extremely dignified manner: running backwards around the trolley as fast as possible, stopping halfway up to catch my breath and get rid of my dizziness!

Ta da! One Lydia-wrapped trolley...
Ta da! One Lydia-wrapped trolley…

After that, Jesse, one of the other storage interns (Vivien), and I slowly moved all 17 trolleys in batches of 2 down to the loading bay. With 2 elevators, 4 doors, countless hallways, and occasional tour groups to contend with, the route was truly an obstacle course! Because this project was so different from the reading and computer work that I typically performed both at Winterthur and at school, it was really valuable to realize all the processes that go into moving delicate items. I think that seeing all 17 trolleys collected and ready to be moved offsite also inspired a strong sense of accomplishment for everyone involved!

Project Runway: Paper Doll Edition (aka. Terrific Tuesdays, Part 2)

Mystery Objects: Texture Week

For Texture Week I ran a game, which was a nice change of pace. The game also allowed me to interact a bit more with the kids, which was especially rewarding because I finally started to recognize families who came every week (and they started to recognize me). First, we placed mystery objects in cloth bags. Then, the children felt inside, told me what textures described the item in the bag, and guessed what it was. Depending on the age of the children, some were more successful than others at not looking before they guessed…

Taken from the study collection (a group of objects catalogued separately from the main collection, that can be handled with less care) and the “Touch it” room in the museum, the items were mostly reproductions. For instance, one bag held a spool of flax and another held a piece of linen. I enjoyed explaining that flax felt like hair, but is actually a plant fiber (and that the linen fabric was made from flax – they felt the same substance twice, but in very different forms). For older children, we provided a large selection of cards with texture words on them, which they could match to each bag. However, one bag remained a mystery to every single person who felt inside (even the adults). Undaunted, and inspired by the challenge, some kids spent most of their time at the station attempting to guess what they held in their hands.

Some of the best guesses: A unicorn horn, a honey dipper, a screwdriver, a drumstick, and a magic wand!

Mystery Object
The most mysterious object!

Well, I wish we had a unicorn horn or a magic wand to display, but this is actually the far more mundane drop spindle, used to spin thread. Most of the children had no idea what a drop spindle was or how it worked. References to Sleeping Beauty became surprisingly helpful, even though she pricked her finger on  a spinning wheel’s spindle (not a drop spindle). One kid who had recently been in his school’s production of Sleeping Beauty even pretended to faint, in order to demonstrate what happened when her finger touched the spindle!

Blackboard Drawing: Value Week

Artist at work...
Artist at work…

Value Week’s activity required kids to experiment with how you can represent black and white with different techniques and materials. Rather than connecting to a specific piece of art in the Winterthur collection, this table provided children with the opportunity to practice thinking like an artist. Each child took a black and a white piece of card stock, and using white chalk and black graphite, they drew the same image on both papers but in contrasting colors. The adventurous could also practice covering their paper with a layer of pigment and then erasing away to reveal shapes. For inspiration, we provided a variety of printed examples of modern and historical black and white sketches.

Paper Doll Clothing Patterns: Pattern Week (upcoming)

Sadly I was not able to see the result of this activity planning, as Pattern Week has not yet happened and I have finished my internship. However, during my last week I developed part of this activity. The table will include a matching game for children to think about the relationship between clothing patterns and finished outfits. After kids finish the game, the plan is for them to make and decorate their own clothing for large cardboard paper dolls that Lois (the Associate Curator of Education, who runs Terrific Tuesdays) found online. I was excited by the challenge of coming up with doll clothing patterns, especially since I now had plenty of experience working with the Terrific Tuesdays kids and a much better idea of their crafting abilities than I did at the beginning of the summer.

Image result for 1930s kids dress
Design Source (found on Pinterest)
Girl's Outfit
Girl’s Outfit
Dress Pattern
Dress Pattern








I decided to design 1930s inspired clothing for the dolls, evoking the kinds of clothes that H.F. duPont’s children and their friends might have worn while growing up at Winterthur. Armed with lots of construction paper, my desk quickly disappeared under a pile of failed attempts and paper scraps. My goal was to come up with a pattern that required as little gluing as possible, and relatively simple cutting. After much trial and error (I truly felt like a project runway contestant, fitting my sample dress onto the paper doll and cutting away to ensure the perfect fit), I finally developed a girl’s dress and a boy’s shirt and shorts that I hope kids and their families will like!

Boy's Outfit
Boy’s Outfit
Shirt and Shorts Patterns
Shirt and Shorts Patterns

Terrific Tuesdays, Part 1: Flowers and Food

Every Tuesday from July until the end of August, Winterthur offers “Terrific Tuesdays,” a family program that exposes kids to objects in the museum and museum work with crafts and games. This summer’s theme was the “Elements of Art” (color, value, shape, line, texture, form, and pattern), and each week’s activities revolved around one element. Along with about 5 tables staffed and developed by Public Programs, the conservation department and the gardens also manned tables. One or two local artists also came to give demonstrations each week (block printers, basket makers, and weavers, for instance).

I was “on loan” to Public Programs all day every Tuesday, working with  two interns from the University of Delaware (Carolanne and AnnaLivia) who spent their whole summer working exclusively on family programming. A group of about 7 teen volunteers also came in to staff tables on Tuesday and Thursday, when Winterthur took a selection of the week’s activities to the Salvation Army’s summer camp in Wilmington. I didn’t go to the Salvation Army every week, but I did go several times to help out, which was a lot of fun.

Here are the first two tables that I helped run this summer:

Bubble Hydrangea Cards: Color Week

Bubble Hydrangea Craft Station
Bubble Hydrangea Craft Station
Winterthur Hydrangeas
Winterthur Hydrangeas

I came up with bubble hydrangeas (or, rather, found the craft idea after lots of searching through Pinterest and mommy blogs!), and developed it (with indispensable help from the wonderful Carolanne and AnnaLivia). At first, the only how-to videos we could find on YouTube were in German, which might explain why the first round of testing ended in failure…

The internet showed children successfully making bubble patterns in paper with dye- we figured that we should be able to make successful bubbles too! We eventually discovered that glycerin is the  magic ingredient, and after that the craft went forward without a hitch.

The Winterthur gardens are full of hydrangeas, so we used the flowers as an anchor for the activity and also provided pH strips for kids to test in acidic and basic solutions. This taught them about pH, and we encouraged them to think about how hydrangea petals change colors based on the acidity of the soil. Both the litmus paper and the bubbles were popular with kids, parents, and grandparents! We did have to make sure that some of the smaller children blew bubbles out rather than drinking up paint through the straws, though.

Paint ready to be used...
Paint ready to be used…
My own attempt at making some bubble hydrangeas...
My own attempt at making some bubble hydrangeas…








Clay Pretzels: Line Week

Pretzel Station (before the children arrived- this was the tidiest it looked all day!)
Pretzel Station (before the children arrived- this was the tidiest it looked all day!)

With model magic, paint, and salt, we made our own “fake food” like the imitation food found in the collection. Winterthur’s large Pennsylvania German collection and the fact that this week was “Line Week” made pretzels a natural choice. These pretzels were almost too realistic, however. My heart almost stopped when I looked down halfway through the day and saw a bite taken out of the sample pretzel- I turned and right next to me, a toddler had a mouth full of clay! Thankfully, his mother was nearby and quickly handled the problem, but then I had to move the pretzel to the center of the table because this child kept reaching for it! You would think that after one mouthful of clay he wouldn’t have been interested in seconds…

My sample pretzel (before it was almost eaten)
My sample pretzel (before it was almost eaten)









Phillips Collection Recap

Hi! I’m late, it’s true i’ll admit it. Weeks have passed since my last blog update, so I’m thinking the best form for this post is a recap of what I’ve been up to for the last five or six weeks and some concluding thoughts before my internship winds down tomorrow.

Curatorial Stuff

Since my last update, we have completed the Nordic exhibition catalogue and sent it to the publisher. Klaus Ottmann, the show’s curator, used my research in writing the image captions and as a result, I am being thanked in the book’s introduction!

I extend a special thanks to… and to Charlie Parsons, who assisted Dr. Ottmann on the research for the catalogue entries as part of his Woody Internship in Museum Studies from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

This was such an honor and a pleasure to work on. In addition to research, I proofread both the Nordic catalogue and the catalogue for our upcoming Zilia Sanchez solo exhibition. I firmly believe this type of research and close reading has dramatically improved my ability to think and write about art as well as my passion for continuing in the field.



As part of my assignment to research other DC special exhibitions, I visited a total of 4 DC museums this summer. I synthesized my impressions of shows at the NGA, Hirshhorn, SAAM, and National Museum of Women in the Arts into a presentation, which I present tomorrow. The presentation highlights positives and negatives from an exhibition and program planning perspective. I conclude my discussion of each show with a lesson I think the Phillips could glean from the execution of these shows.

Also for exhibitions, I’ve updated spreadsheets of image checklists and participated in meetings to plan upcoming shows

Public Programs

The list goes on! This summer I staffed the after-hours programs we host every Thursday, doing a variety of things from taking tickets to supervising craft stations.

Additionally, I’ve researched program ideas and potential speakers relating to the art of Zilia Sanchez as well as the art included in The Warmth of Other Suns, an upcoming show centered around migration and immigration. I explored an idea for a Zine making workshop in depth and drafted a budget. I’m told Programs may use my idea Spring 2019 when the Zilia show goes up.

I also edited and optimized our visitor survey form to consolidate two spreadsheets into one and optimize questions for analysis.

Working with Programs has sparked my interest in engaging new visitors and planning events where people can form deeper connections with the arts.


Ah Phillips Music. We finally finished generating webpages for each performer in the 2018-2019 concert season. I also drafted promotional tweets advertising a series of concerts, which were tweeted from the official museum twitter.

Later, I copy edited the season brochure before it went to the publisher. Most recently I helped make a filing system to archive contracts and brochures from past concerts.

Misc Stuff

In between all of that fun stuff I’ve thankfully found the time to talk to several different departments within the museum and in other museums. I’ve had three informational interviews: one with Development, one with a Registrar, and one at SAAM with a Programs Assistant who used to intern at the UMD Center where I work now. I also saw the inside of the conservator’s studio, which was super super cool.

I’ve also recently organized and filed loan letters for another curator, attended a gallery opening at UMD, and of course, spent a lot of time on

Meeting people from so many different ends of the museum world has expanded my perspective on what museum careers can look like and gifted me priceless insight on where I want to go with my career and what I need to do to get there.


It’s been a wonderful summer. This internship surpassed my highest hopes for what a summer program can be. I’m not exaggerating, this has been a formative experience for me and has completely altered my perspective on museum work and art history. I owe eternal gratitude to (alphabetical order i’m not ranking) Caitlin, Caroline, Kathryn, Kelley, Klaus, Liza, the rest of my brilliant coworkers and bosses, and of course the generous Woody family for making this such a fun and educational experience.

I attached some images below. Some of them relate to my summer experience, and some do not.

sam gil

Sam Gilliam
Along. 1969.
Acrylic on canvas
111 x 144 x 2 inches (281.9 x 365.8 x 5.1 cm)

Anne Truitt
15 Nov ’65. 1965.
Acrylic on paper
20 1/2 x 27 1/2 inches (52 x 70 cm)


Image result for albers luminous day

Josef Albers

Luminous Day, 1947-1952
Oil on Masonite
11 x 21 1/2 inches (27.9 x 54.6 cm)

Image result for hilma af klint parsifal

Hilma Af Klint
Parsifal, nº1 (1916)
Watercolor or Ink on paper

Image result for martin soto climent gossip

Martin Soto Climent
Gossip. 2017
Tights, mirror, banak wood
12 1/5 × 8 3/10 × 3 9/10 in (31 × 21 × 10 cm)

Colonial Williamsburg: Project Preview IV

Death of General Wolfe Benjamin West, c. 1770

Recently, I have been looking into the life and work of Benjamin West, the first American painter of international renown. A portrait that was loaned to Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago is in question regarding its attribution as it was one of his early works while he still lived in America. The portrait, depicting Severn Eyre of the illustrious and wealthy Eyre family on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, dates to somewhere between 1749-1759. Due to the time (as Benjamin West was born in 1738 and would had to be between the age of 11-21 when he painted this) and the location (as West primarily painted only in Pennsylvania and briefly in New York before going abroad and never returning), the attribution is questioned. So, I was to look into the whereabouts of Benjamin West during this time and see if it was remotely possible that this portrait may have actually been done by him.

Benjamin West (1738-1820) was born near Swarthmore, Pennsylvania to an innkeeper. Though his parents attended Meeting, they did not belong to the Society of Friends until later, when West was already in England. In a painting from 1772 when he was visited by family in England, West depicts his family in the simple and modest clothing of Quakers while he depicts his wife, children, and himself wearing lavish and fashionable clothing, standing out from his half-brother and father who sit before him. He was encouraged to pursue his talents from a young age, despite the fact that Quakers generally disapprove of portrait painting. Nevertheless, according to the legends written by Benjamin West’s biographer, John Galt, he made his first likeness at the age of 6-7 and soon caught the attention of rich and well-connected men who stayed at his family’s tavern, gaining patronage that would bring him to Lancaster, PA and then to Philadelphia. There, he was introduced to the professional painter William Williams who inspired him to pursue painting as a career. While in Lancaster in 1755-56, he paints “Death of Socrates,” his first history painting, something that he would pursue for the rest of his life. In 1756, he attracted the attention of Dr. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia (now UPenn), and had a program focusing on classical learning specially devised for West, something which would encourage his imagination and influence his history paintings in the future. After meeting William Kelly in New York (where he moved in 1758 in search of higher fees for his paintings), he is given 50 pounds for a voyage to Italy, where he is to study the masters and improve upon his skill.
In 1760, Benjamin West sets sail for Europe and never returns to America, though it always holds a dear place in his heart and vocally introduces himself as American to many of those he meets in Europe. After three years in Italy studying the masters and learning from Anton Raphael Mengs, he travels to London, where he sets up shop and establishes himself. In less than three years, he becomes close friends with both Benjamin Franklin (who later becomes the godfather of his second son) and King George III. Soon, he is appointed a charter member of the Royal Academy of Arts where he is able to display his paintings and establish great renown. He is appointed the History Painter to King George III in 1772 and then the Surveyor of the King’s Paintings in 1791. In 1792 he is elected the second president of the Royal Academy, a position he serves for 28 years (apart from a yearlong blip where he attempts to retire but is unsatisfied by the new president’s work so he takes over a second time in 1806).
All of this is to show that Benjamin West was highly regarded for his adept skill at painting and his creative and revolutionary outlook on history painting. Before West, history painters depicted their subjects in classical garb, something that was a key pillar of the neoclassical style. However, West decided to depict historical scenes with greater accuracy and in time-period appropriate attire. For instance, his most famous work “The Death of General Wolfe” depicts a scene from 1759 in the French and Indian War, with the subjects all wearing their military attire. This accuracy and realism changed the tide for history painters and, while he did face backlash initially, influenced many painters who came after him. Benjamin West is often known as the Father of American Painting, as he took many fledgling American artists under his wing, including John Singleton Copley, Charles Wilson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, and Thomas Sully. The list goes on, but it is clear that the influence of Benjamin West extends beyond the 400+ works that he produced.
As I wrap up the last few days of my internship here, I am still trying to find out whether or not Benjamin West could have painted the portrait of Severn Eyre, attempting to place him in Virginia or Eyre in Philadelphia. Stay tuned!

Colonial Williamsburg: Project Preview III

Another project I’ve worked on that has spanned the majority of the summer was the research of both sitter and painter of a recently acquired painting to the CWF collection. The portrait, depicting a middle aged woman in fashionable, yet relaxed dress, hails from the Lynchburg/ Bedford, VA area. When the research was handed over to me, the date of the portrait had been established at around 1820-1830 roughly based on her fashion, which the Costumes curator had determined. Across the back of the portrait was the name “Yancey” and through research it was shown that this portrait was likely that of Elizabeth “Bettie” Macon Yancey, wife of Col. Joel Yancey. From Bedford, VA, Joel Yancey had served in the War of 1812 and then settled down in Bedford at a home called “Rothsay.” Joel was the superintendent of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, and the couple frequently dined at Jefferson’s country home. Bettie and Joel had a number of children, but only a few of them went on to marry and have children of their own. However, their grandson Robert Davis Yancey was the subject of a novel turned movie in the 1940s titled “The Vanishing Virginian.” When Joel died in 1833, Bettie moved to Lynchburg, buying a home for herself and her young daughters in the downtown area, a house that still stands today and is known as the Elizabeth Yancey House. For the most part, however, Joel and Bettie were fairly upper middle class, and the portrait of her reflects that. It is an intimate portrait, likely only intended for consumption by family and close friends and displayed in private rooms of the house, due to the informality and intimacy of the portrait.

My research focused on learning anything I could about Mrs. Yancey and possibly identifying a painter. There were few painters with studios in Lynchburg or Bedford during the early-mid 19th century, but quite a number of itinerant painters who set up shop temporarily before moving on to the next town. However, the work of Harvey Mitchell caught my attention. A native of the Bedford/Lynchburg area, Mitchell was born around 1801 and made a career of portrait painting. He primarily worked in Bedford and Lynchburg, painting many family members, but he also made it down as far as South Carolina, as newspaper advertisements show. He never signed any of his work, making it difficult to attribute a number of his works, but it seems as if his style varied quite a bit. He stood out to me from the other possibilities due to the significant connections that he had to the Yancey family. His sister Katherine Mitchell married into the Steptoe Family of Bedford through James C. Steptoe. Bettie and Joel’s daughter Catherine Louisa also married a Steptoe, Thomas Steptoe, the brother of James. Additionally, a third brother, William Steptoe, was close friends with Joel Yancey, with whom he had fought in the War of 1812. Additionally, William Steptoe was the primary physician for Thomas Jefferson when he was at Poplar Forest, and is also known to have dined with Jefferson there. Even further, Harvey Mitchell’s father owned the grain mill that supplied Poplar Forest, and this man would have been someone that Joel Yancey was rather acquainted with, as correspondence indicates. Thus, because of these connections through business and marriage, I feel as if there are a number of opportunities in which a portrait painting may arise. After studying a number of Harvey Mitchell’s paintings, similarities begin to arise. However, the examples of his other works are not high quality and I have been attempting to find better examples to help conclusively make this attribution.

This research has been a fun dive into hundreds of questions for which there are not yet complete answers. My research on this portrait has helped raise these questions and open doors as I was in contact with museums across the Central Virginia region, art appraisers, and even a descendant of the painter Harvey Mitchell. It has been one of the most interesting projects I have worked on this summer and I enjoyed getting well acquainted with Mrs. Yancey.