More Than Meets the Eye: What Their Portraits Say About the Lewis Family

On walls of the Historic Kenmore’s drawing room hang two large portraits of a man and a woman.  The man is an older gentleman in a serene outdoor setting, looking quite dignified and sober in a brownish knee-length jacket, knee breeches and long waistcoat. His eyes rest on the portrait viewer, one hand on moss-covered rocks, the other on his hip, and his head turned slightly to his left.  Across the room, the woman sits at a slight profile with her head turned to her left to face the portrait viewer. She wears a billowing blue and white dress and holds two pink roses in her right hand while her left arm casually sits on a marble top table. She is indoors with what appear to be some drapes billowing behind her. The man and woman are Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, the owners of Kenmore.

Fielding and Betty’s portraits were commissioned by the couple and painted by prolific colonial artist John Wollaston in the 1750s.  On the surface, these paintings are just two genial portraits that provide us with visual records of the heads of the family. Through the subtle symbolism, however, they also tell a larger story of how Fielding and Betty wished to be portrayed publically to their contemporaries as well as to posterity.

Portraits first became a popular mode of expression for the aristocracy and the wealthy during the Renaissance.  These paintings were usually large scale affairs meant to be displayed and seen by the public.  The paintings depicted people with expensive goods, fine cloth, rare flowers, and exotic pets. Whether the portraits’ subjects actually owned these items was less important than the suggestion including the items made. In fact, these paintings were filled with symbolism–images, objects, or colors representing ideas and that allow the artist to go beyond the obvious to create links between otherwise different concepts.  A color can depict character, a flower personality and a fabric economic status.[1]

Through symbolism, portraits were used to reflect social status, wealth, success, power and cultural refinement.  A portrait’s details were integral to the story of the painting and many factors had to be taken into account.  Aspects such as artist, style, background, color, fabric, and accessories all needed to be discussed to create the portrayal desired by the patron.[2]

Centuries after the Renaissance, the importance of portraiture as a record of status and position in society had not changed and the custom had become more popular outside of the aristocracy as well as outside of Europe.  Even in faraway British North America, the wealth of the gentry, or upper class, desired portraits to show their status and position. Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, members of the gentry with a wealthy business in Atlantic World trade, were no exception. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis wanted to portray themselves as socially refined not only to cement their place in the community but to allow for a continued rise in their status.  Accordingly, they sat for portraits by John Wollaston.

Fielding Lewis (c. 1753-1758) by John Wollaston.

The most noticeable thing about Fielding’s portrait is the muted colors used in the background and in his clothing.  One of the most visually striking symbols in portraits was the colors used to represent the subject.  While color may not have inherent meaning, it can be made meaningful through context.  The colors in the background, clothing, and accessories all relate to the overall message or story being told by the artist. The browns, greens, and beiges in Fielding’s portrait create a natural and relaxed atmosphere.  The nature background is a stylized classical bucolic setting that helps strike a balance between Fielding’s muted clothing palette and the landscape setting.  The woodland glen signifies a natural sincerity that, when mixed with the brown and beige of his ensemble, creates the feeling of calmness, reliability, dependability and an earthy richness.  All of these traits are important for a successful merchant.  Fielding was telling visitors to his house that he was a person they could do business with and trust.[3]

Betty Lewis (1750) by John Wollaston. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Betty’s portrait uses color, context, fabric and an accessory to illustrate her own geniality and her family’s affluence, for not only as a Lewis but as a Washington as well.  The background around Betty, who is at the center of the portrait, offers hints of this grandeur with brown walls and a heavy brown billowing curtain creating a frame of luxurious richness.  To add to the opulence, Betty is poised with her arm resting on an ornate Rococo-style marble top table with heavily carved gold legs.  The portrait conveys that she can afford such ornamental comforts.  Next to the table, Betty in her flowy blue and white satin dress with a pair of roses resting on her right knee is the focus.  Blue was a popular color for ladies and was common in many portraits painted by Wollaston. The color gives the sitter not only an air of peace and calmness but also of restraint and intelligence. The satin denotes a luxury and fashion available to only those with means. Meanwhile, the pink rose tells of Betty’s grace, beauty and gentility.  Overall, the portrait depicts a sophisticated and refined 18th century woman, a wife and mother who adds balance and depth to her husband’s trustworthiness and professionalism.[4]

Fielding and Betty did not stop with portraits of themselves.  About twenty years after sitting for John Wollaston, they commissioned famed painter Charles Willson Peale to produce several portraits of their offspring.  There are two in Kenmore’s collection.

John Lewis (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

One of these Peale portraits depicts John Lewis, the eldest son of Fielding and his first wife, Catharine who sits with one hand on his hip and one hand on a book.  The posture gives John a sense of self-assurance and capability.  Unlike his father’s subdued color palette, John’s jacket and waistcoat are an amazing red with gold detailing.  The red paired with the gold creates warmth but also projects a sense of power, strength and confidence.  The book in his the left hand gives an air of knowledge and awareness.

Fielding Lewis Jr (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

The second Peale portrait in the collection depcits Fielding Lewis Jr., the eldest son of Fielding and Betty, striking a very traditional pose with a hand tucked in his jacket and a slight tilt of the head.  The pose is welcoming, kind and is the embodiment of a thoughtful young gentleman.  Much like his father he chose a subdued color palette with an earthy reddish-brown jacket and goldish yellow waistcoat, which convey a sense of reliability, stability and affability.  The brown background adds a natural simplicity with soothing warmth.   Additionally, like his brother, there is a well-read book by his side indicating a sense of learning and mindfulness.  This portrait’s symbolism reflects the more aspirational messages in these paintings as Fielding, Jr. struggled with money problems for most of his life and even ended up in debtors’ prison.

Later portraits in Kenmore’s collection contain other fascinating symbolism that tells the stories of the paintings’ subjects. These portraits visually record family history or emphasize familial connections.

Eleanor Rosalie Tucker (1818) by unknown artist.

This 19th century portrait of Eleanor Rosalie Tucker, the great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty, is painted in characteristic neoclassical style with direct lighting, soft features, rosy cheeks and a roundness of the face.  The white muslin gown gives the young girl a purity and serenity beyond her years.  The halo surrounding the sitter represents her delicacy and gives her an otherworldliness. This is appropriate as, sadly, she was painted for this portrait on her deathbed in 1818.

The Wallace Family (c. 1856-1862) by John Adams Elder. A loan courtesy of Mrs. W. Wallace Morton, Jr.

Finally, this portrait of the Wallace family painted in the mid-Victorian period is quite a unique painting in our collection with a fascinating twist to its symbolism.  The portrait has a traditional composition but at the center is a large leashed bird in mid-flight.  This bird is a rebus, a puzzle device used to visually depict words and/or phrases.  They are used extensively in heraldry to hint at the name of the bearer.  This painting’s bird rebus is attached to a young girl named Mary Byrd Wallace, the great, great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty Lewis.

Portraits are sometimes the only visual representation we may have of a historic figure.  These portraits do more than capture a person’s appearance, however.  The wealthy and socially important also used portraits and their symbolism to emphasize their wealth and high status.  Portraits also visually recorded family history or emphasized familial connections.  For the Lewis family, like everything in their house and like their house itself, their portraits revealed how they saw themselves and, perhaps more importantly, how they wanted others to see them whether in the 18th or the 21st centuries.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager


[1] “Faces of a New Nation: American Portraits of the 18th and early 19th centuries”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2003: 11

[2] Crown, Carol. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 23, University of North Carolina Press, 2013: 150-151.

[3] Centeno, Carlos. “Lose the Color Symbolism Chart: The Unpredictable Meanings of Color,” July 6 2016. https://medium.com/@carlitocenteno/lose-the-color-symbolism-chart-the-unpredictable-meanings-of-color-edc81db6541e; “Faces of a New Nation,” 13

[4] “British and American Grand Master Portraits of the 1700s”, National Gallery of Art. https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/british-and-american-grand-manner-portraits-of-the-1700s.html; Centeno; De la Tour, Charlotte. Le langage des fleurs, 1819: 58; Hooper, Lucy. The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry, 1846: 248.

The ‘Monuments Men’ of World War II Come to Kenmore

Fielding Lewis by John Wollaston, ca. 1765. This portrait has been in the Kenmore Collection for many decades.  It was recently returned to the Drawing Room, where it would have hung when the Lewis family lived in the house 200 years ago. Watch a video of the hanging process here.

Editor’s Note: This Memorial Day, we again remember ‘The Monuments Men’ and their invaluable work to locate and save European art looted by the Nazis during World War II as well as their continued efforts to conserve and preserve art after the war, including art at Historic Kenmore.  This post originally appeared on Lives & Legacies on May 20, 2015.

Recently, while flipping through old files of the Kenmore Association dating back to the 1920s and looking for anything related to our portrait of Fielding Lewis by John Wollaston (ca. 1765), I spotted a familiar name: George Stout.  It took me only a moment to realize why the name was familiar.  Those of you who read Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History or saw the movie The Monuments Men starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray may also recognize the name.

During World War II, George Stout was a member of the U.S. Army’s  Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, nicknamed the “Monuments Men.”  These soldiers volunteered to leave their jobs as curators, historians and conservators to travel the frontlines in Europe, documenting, cataloging and in some cases saving priceless cultural artifacts in harm’s way.  Along with serving as a Monuments Man, Stout is widely considered the father of modern methods in art conservation in the museum world.  He’s kind of a rock star to all of us who work in museums, as are all of the Monuments Men.  It is not often that curators get to be the hero, but those men were.

Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group. Age: 47. Born: Winterset, Iowa. A towering figure in the then obscure field of art conservation, Stout was one of the first people in America to understand the Nazi threat to the cultural patrimony of Europe and pushed the museum community and the army toward establishing a professional art conservation corps. As a field officer, he was the go-to expert for all the other Monuments Men in northern Europe and their indispensable role model and friend. Dapper and well-mannered, with a fastidiousness and thoroughness that shone in the field, Stout, a veteran of World War I, left behind a wife, Margie, and a young son. His oldest son served in the U.S. Navy. Walter Hanncock Collection, courtesy of the Monuments Men Foundation

Lieutenant George Stout, U.S. First Army and U.S. Twelfth Army Group. Age: 47. Born: Winterset, Iowa. A towering figure in the then obscure field of art conservation, Stout was one of the first people in America to understand the Nazi threat to the cultural patrimony of Europe and pushed the museum community and the army toward establishing a professional art conservation corps. As a field officer, he was the go-to expert for all the other Monuments Men in northern Europe and their indispensable role model and friend. Dapper and well-mannered, with a fastidiousness and thoroughness that shone in the field, Stout, a veteran of World War I, left behind a wife, Margie, and a young son. His oldest son served in the U.S. Navy.  From the Walter Hancock Collection courtesy of the Monuments Men Foundation.

ALTAUSSEE, AUSTRIA – JULY 10, 1945: Removal of priceless works of art from the salt mine at Alt Aussee posed problems for Monuments Man George Stout unlike any ever contemplated. Stout constructed a pulley to lift Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna onto the salt cart to begin its long trip home to Belgium. Visible on the far left is Monuments Man Steve Kovalyak, an expert in packing art, who was a key assistant to Stout. National Gallery of Art photo courtesy of the Monuments Men Foundation.

After the war, many of the Monuments Men returned to their museum jobs where they continued to work together, revolutionizing the care and conservation of artwork and historic objects.  They established standards for conservation practices, ethics for conservators, and tested new scientific methods for preserving all varieties of artwork.  Perhaps their greatest legacy was that many of them established schools for training conservators, ensuring the future of the field.  For the first time, American museums had a cadre of experts to turn to when masterpieces in their collections needed help.

Kenmore’s old files perfectly reveal the post-war story of George Stout and the Monuments Men. It’s a story that also involves numerous other luminaries of the art conservation world such as John Walker, Harold Cross, Sheldon and Caroline Keck, and Russell Quandt.

It all started in 1949, when John Walker, then Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Art, visited Kenmore.  His visit moved him to write a letter to Kenmore’s own Louise DuPont Crowninshield, praising the Kenmore Association for its work in saving the property and for its fine collection, which included the Wollaston portrait of Fielding Lewis.  Mr. Walker felt very strongly that the Wollaston portrait was in need of immediate conservation treatment.  He recommended a young man named Harold Cross, the new restorer at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for the project.

John Walker was not a Monuments Man but he was heavily involved in the complicated and tedious post-war effort to identify artwork looted by the Nazis.  This brought him in close contact with many of the Monuments Men over several decades.  He suggested the Kenmore Association contact George Stout, then at the Worcester Museum of Art, to get a personal testimonial as to Harold Cross’s abilities. Cross apprenticed under George Stout, receiving training in Stout’s scientific methodology.  Mrs. Crowninshield contacted Stout, who highly recommended his former student. Cross performed the first ever restoration of the ca. 1765 Wollaston portrait.  The post-war Monuments Men network had made its first mark at Kenmore by saving our only image of Fielding Lewis.

keck_sheldon

Lieutenant Sheldon Keck (kneeling), United States Army. Read Keck’s biography here. Courtesy of the Monuments Men Foundation.

The next involvement of the Monuments Men with the Wollaston portrait came in 1952, when the ladies of the Kenmore Association became concerned that the portrait was warping at an alarming rate.  Through personal connections, they learned that Sheldon and Caroline Keck would be visiting Colonial Williamsburg in January.  Sheldon Keck was a former Monuments Man and the chief restorer at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; his wife Caroline was also a restoration specialist at the same museum.  Together, they trained more than 150 conservators before they retired.

Their presence in Virginia was fortuitous, and the decision was made to pack up the Wollaston and have Executive Director Mary Mason take it directly to Williamsburg.  Mr. and Mrs. Keck agreed to take a look at the painting, and apparently performed their treatment of it in their hotel room, “re-keying” the wooden stretcher so as to tighten the canvas and reduce the warp.  The Kecks did not charge for their emergency services “in the field”, rather they indicated that it was their pleasure to assist in the preservation of such an important work.

Finally, in 1957, the Wollaston portrait’s care was passed on to the capable hands of another heir to the Monuments Men legacy.  When new preservation issues surfaced, the Kecks recommended a former student of theirs, Russell Quandt, examine the painting.  Over the next decade, Mr. Quandt would be the primary conservator of the portrait, performing treatments on it both on-site at Kenmore, at his lab at the Corcoran, and eventually at his own private-practice studio.

All told, the Monuments Men were either directly responsible, or had trained those responsible, for the preservation of Kenmore’s Wollaston portrait for almost 20 years.  It can be argued that they continue in that role today, as we hire conservators whose professional training has been a direct result of the methods, systems and institutions established by them.  Many of today’s conservators are still inspired by the wartime service of the Monuments Men.  As Memorial Day approaches, the museum world in both Europe and in this country owes them an immense debt of gratitude.

Visit http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/ to learn more about George Stout and Sheldon Keck, their comrades, and their wartime work.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations