Sunday, November 16, 2014

Original Post on Maryland State House Blog “A Most Amiable Man As Well As An Excellent Artist:” Edwin White

Original Post on Maryland State House Blog “A Most Amiable Man As Well As An Excellent Artist:Edwin White”

Last week, Washington Resigning His Commission was removed from its place on the grand staircase of the State House’s New Annex for conservation as part of the Old Senate Chamber restoration. But how did this major work come to be in the State House?

Edwin White's Washington Resigning His Commission as Commander-in-Chief, painted in 1859. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1112.

On March 5, 1856, the Maryland Senate appropriated $3000 and appointed a committee comprised of Samuel Owings Hoffman, William Lingan Gaither, and James Wallace to commission an artist to paint the resignation of Washington in honor of its 75th anniversary. The Maryland senators hoped that this commission would produce a work comparable to John Trumbull’s 1824 monumental depiction of the resignation at the U.S. Capitol. However, the committee struggled to find a suitable artist for the portrait. James Wallace later explained to the legislature: "Your committee found it difficult to obtain the work from artist of reputation and established fame for the sum heretofore appropriated for that purpose."[1] 
Despite the apparent interest of local artist Francis Blackwell Mayer, who completed several sketches of the Old Senate Chamber in March 1856, the committee ultimately selected American artist Edwin White on April 3, 1857. The Baltimore Sun reported that White, “who already possesses a high artistic reputation, has consented to undertake the work more from a desire to increase his renown, than from motives of pecuniary reward.”[2]

Portrait of Edwin White painting by Frederick R. Spencer, c.1837 when White was around the age of 20. Image courtesy of Frick Art Reference Library, National Academy of Design, 1192-P.

Edwin White (1817-1877) was born in South Hadley, Massachusetts. His family was one of the direct descendants of Elder John White, one of the first settlers of Hartford, Connecticut in 1636, and a founder of Hadley, Massachusetts.[3] From an early age, Edwin White showed artistic talent and, when he was eighteen, began study under portraitist Phillip Hewins in Harford, Connecticut.
Within five years of starting his training with Hewins, White began studying at the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York and went on to be a part of the American Art-Union, which distributed most of his paintings. In 1850, White took his first trip to Europe where he studied at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris under François Edouard Picot, and continued on to Germany to study with Karl Wilhelm Hübner.
Early on in his career, White took an interest in creating historical pieces. He was especially fond of European scenes, and particularly Paris. Of the city, White wrote, "Paris appears to me as one of the most desirable places for an artist in the world whatever branch of the art he may choose to further a study, he finds him the material."[4] White joined a circle of several American artists in Paris in the nineteenth-century including Sanford Gifford and John Singer Sargent. He was well-liked among the artists, and Sanford Gifford described him in a letter to his father as “a most amiable man as well as an excellent artist.”[5] It was no surprise, then, that only a few months after receiving his official commission from Maryland, White left to work on Washington Resigning in his studio in Paris.

Excerpt of an article from an art journal tracking the progress of Washington Resigning. "Foreign Correspondence Items," The Crayon, April 1858.

Art journals very closely followed the painting’s progress. The Crayon provided one of the most detailed descriptions of Washington Resigning right after its completion: "The artist has managed a difficult subject very successfully...By making us feel the interest which the figures themselves take in the proceeding before us, all eyes being fixed on Washington, he has succeeded in impressing us with the solemnity of an important event in our national history. We have no doubt but that Washington Resigning His Commission will give perfect satisfaction to the people of Maryland, and take rank with the best efforts of its class."[6]
Edwin White returned to the United States on July 1859 with Washington Resigning, which was officially completed in August 1859 in his New York studio. Washington Resigning made a brief tour of the east coast before settling into its home in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House at the end of that year. In total, White was paid $6,000 for the work.
The frame for Washington Resigning was provided by Samson Cariss (1804-1870), an English immigrant and art dealer who had settled in Baltimore in 1829. The Maryland legislature paid Cariss $300 for the gilded frame, along with other unnamed furnishing to the State House.[7]

Photograph of Washington Resigning hanging in the Old Senate Chamber, before it was moved in 1904 to its current home on the grand staircase in the New Annex. 1898, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5788.

For several years, Edwin White's depiction of the resignation was regarded as unhelpful for interpretation of the actual ceremony. Almost immediately after its arrival in Annapolis, The Baltimore Sun reported that the painting “elicited a diversity of sentiment as to its merits, but comments thereon are generally disparaging.”[8] Modern researchers, when assessing the accuracy of the painting, frequently pointed toward artistic licenses White took, especially in regards to the audience members. Although it is hard to avoid noting that White left out one of the chamber's windows and placed women (including Martha Washington) on the floor of the chamber, it is important to remember that he was selected for the commission in part due to his reputation as an accurate history painter. 
Recent research into passenger records, letters of fellow artists, and art journals concludes that White had very likely visited the Old Senate Chamber before his departure to Paris to begin the painting. Thus, in Washington Resigning, there exists an interpretation of the Old Senate Chamber's 1850s appearance, nearly ten years before any photographs of the room had been taken. While we do not yet know how faithful White was in his depiction of the architectural appearance of the OSC, it is clear that this painting is an important piece of documentary evidence about the pre-photographic appearance of the room.
Edwin White's Washington Resigning His Commission as Commander-in-Chief will return to the State House after its conservation. As part of the Old Senate Chamber Renovation project, it will be returned to its home on the grand staircase of the new annex to coincide with the opening of the Old Senate Chamber in December 2014.
For more information on Edwin White and Samson Cariss, please see their biographies.
Keep reading for more updates on the conservation process for Washington Resigning!

[1] "Maryland Legislature," Baltimore Sun, January 1858.
[2] “The New Painting for the Capitol of Maryland,” Baltimore Sun, 20 May 1857.
[3] Kellogg, Allyn S. Memorials of Elder John White one of the first settlers of Hartford, Conn., and of his Descendants, Hartford: Case, Lockwood, and Company: 1860, p.254.
[4] New York Historical Society. Records of the American Art-Union, 23 March 1851, "Letters from Artists," MS 12. See reel 7, #32.
[5] Sanford Robinson Gifford papers, 1840s-1900, circa 1960s-1970s. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 8 October 1855.
[6] "Sketchings," The Crayon, October 1859.
[7] Comptroller of the Treasury (Paying Warrants), 1859-1860, MSA S 703-14, MSA S 703-15.
[8] "Letter from the State Capital," Baltimore Sun, 24 December 1859.
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