- Historic Sites
A Visit To Mount Vernon
The Polish poet stayed twelve days and saw it all—the great gardens, pretty Nellie Custis, the distillery, the toy Bastille, the wretched slave huts, the great man himself denouncing the irritating French
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
One enters into a hall which divides the house into two and leads to the piazza . It is decorated with a few engravings of Claude Lorrain. A kind of small crystal lantern contains the actual key of the Bastille. This relic of despotism was sent to the Gl. by the Marquis de La Fayette. Underneath is a drawing representing the demolition of this formidable castle. Furthermore on the piazza one sees a model of it, wholly of a stone which was part of the Bastille; it is a foot and a half high, made with the greatest detail and exactness. It is a pity that the children have already damaged it a little. At the right, on entering, is a parlor . One sees there the portrait of Gl. Washington when he was still in the English service, in a blue uniform, red vest and breeches, the whole trimmed with narrow silver braid, and a small hat in the shape of a mushroom. He is represented in the attitude of an officer on the march; lest there should be any doubt he takes out of the pocket of his vest a paper on which is written March order . He has a gun slung across his back and a violet sash over his shoulders.1 [A painting of] Mrs. Washington (née Dandridge), which makes the pair, has a blue gown with her hair dressed a half an inch high and her ears uncovered. In her right hand she carries a flower. This portrait, which was never good, is in addition badly damaged.2 [There is] a picture representing the family of the Mar[quis] de La Fayette: The Marfquis] in an American uniform is presenting to his wife, who is seated, his son aged 4 also in an American uniform; his two daughters, nearly the same age, complete the group. The picture is well painted and well composed but the paint has fallen off in many places. The marquise has a broad slash the whole length of the left side of her face, a slash which has deprived her of an eye; the older of the girls is also one-eyed, and the younger has lost the end of her nose. There is a portrait of the son and daughter of Mrs. Washington by her first marriage: the child is only 5 years old. He is dressed in a suit and a bag, carrying on his fist a red bird.3 There are portraits in pastel of the Gl., of Madame, of the young Custis, of young La Fayette, and the divine Miss Custis with her hair blown by a storm.4 … 1 C. W. Peale’s 1772 portrait (see AMERICAN HERITAGE , Feb. 1963); 2 and 3 by John Wollaston; all three paintings are now at Washington and Lee University. 4 The son and daughter of Mrs. Washington by her first marriage were John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, children of Martha and Daniel Parke Custis. Both were dead by the time Niemcewicz visited Mount Vernon. The “young Custis” was George Washington Parke Custis and the “divine Miss Custis” was Eleanor (“Nelly”) Parke Custis. They were the children of John Parke Custis.
From this room one goes into a large salon that the Gl. has recently added. It is the most magnificent room in the house. The chimney-piece is in white marble, with beautiful bas-reliefs. [There are] a few pictures, engravings after [Trumbull], representing the death of Gl. [Joseph] Warren and of Gl. [Richard] Montgomery. At the side of the first room is yet another parlor decorated with beautiful engravings representing storms and seascapes. One sees there a superb harpsichord of Miss Custis. On the other side of the hall are the dining room, a bedroom and the library of the Gl.; above, several apartments for Madame, Miss Custis and guests.
On the side opposite the front is an immense open portico supported by eight pillars. It is from there that one looks out on perhaps the most beautiful view in the world. One sees there the waters of the Potowmak rolling majestically over a distance of 4 to 5 miles. Boats which go to and fro make a picture of unceasing motion. A lawn of the most beautiful green leads to a steep slope, covered as far as the bank by a very thick wood where formerly there were deer and roebuck, but a short time ago they broke the enclosure and escaped. [There are] robins, blue titmice, Baltimore bird, the black, red and gold bird . It is there that in the afternoon and evening the GL, his family and the gustes [guests] go to sit and enjoy the fine weather and the beautiful view. …
About three o’clock a carriage drawn by two horses, a young man on horseback alongside, pulled up. A young woman of the greatest beauty [was in the carriage] accompanied by another who was not beautiful at all. This was one of those celestial figures that nature produces only rarely, that the inspiration of painters has sometimes divined, and that one cannot see without ecstasy. Her sweetness is equal to her beauty, and this being, so perfect of form, possesses all the talents: She plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe. [This was Nelly Custis.]
After dinner one goes out onto the portico to read the newspaper. In the evening Gl. Washington] showed us his garden. It is well cultivated and neatly kept; the gardener is an Englishman. One sees there all the vegetables for the kitchen, Corrents, Rasberys, Strawberys, Gusberys, quantities of peaches and cherries, much inferior to ours, which the robins, blackbirds and Negroes devour before they are ripe. …