- Historic Sites
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
We look different this month. As a letter from our president explained to you recently, and as our publisher points out again in her enclosed note, it was the appalling rise in the cost of everything we need to produce the magazine and get it into your hands—paper, ink, printing, binding, postage, and the rest—that finally made the decision to adopt flexible covers imperative.
Be assured, though, that the quality of the magazine will remain the same. Our beat is still precisely as Bruce Catton defined it in our first issue: “anything that ever happened in America.” We think the new format works very well indeed, thanks largely to the handsome design devised by our art director, Murray Belsky. But more than that, we believe that the flexibly bound magazine will provide another, non-economic advantage: increased access to history. It is our hope that a less expensive, less formal-looking magazine will help attract a new generation of readers eager to understand our shared heritage.
The special, selfless kind of heroism symbolized by the portrait of Washington on our front cover is the subject of our lead story this month, written by Carry Wills. And this painting also has a great deal to do with access. It, and its companion on the back cover, are, of course, details from the Athenaeum portraits of the Father and Mother of our country, painted by Gilbert Stuart, and currently the subject of a fierce tug of war between the angry citizenry of Massachusetts and their rulers at Washington.
The portraits were commissioned by Mrs. Washington herself, and, though the painting of her husband is not Stuart’s most accurate rendering—that honor belongs to his first, the so-called Vaughan portrait, in which the President’s stern features have not been so deftly gentled by the painter’s brush—it is the best known and best loved, presiding benevolently over ten thousand classrooms and peering up from each and every dollar bill.
Stuart knew he had a good thing in this”portrait and, to Mrs. Washington’s intense annoyance, refused ever to complete the background, keeping the painting in his studio as a source for making copies: he dashed off at least eighty, taking no more than two hours for each.
The originals have a special meaning for Bostonians. They have hung in that city since 1831, when members of the Athenaeum, that august private library on Beacon Street, bought the pair from Stuart’s widow for $1,500. For over a century they have been on loan to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Enter the Feds. In recent years the Athenaeum has fallen on hard times, and last April, when the National Portrait Gallery offered $5,000,000 for the Washingtons, its trustees accepted. Bostonians at once closed ranks against the invader, much as they had two hundred years ago under the general whose portrait they now wish to save. The city threatened to sue to keep the canvases in town, the state attorney general ordered that the paintings not be sold without his permission, and the Athenaeum agreed to put off the sale until year’s end while a citizens’ committee, led by General James M. Gavin, sought to match the federal offer so that “this elderly couple should not be evicted from the home they love.”
At this writing it seems unlikely they will meet their goal. This is a pity. It is understandable that the National Gallery should try to snap up such treasures, but it is also disturbing to see centralized so much of the nation’s art—as well as her money and power. That, after all, is at least part of what the general’s Revolution was about.