First in a nation's hearts

Exhibition: The Maryland Historical Society has collected artwork and pottery marking the outpouring of grief when George Washington died 200 years ago.

November 18, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The death of George Washington on Dec. 14, 1799, prompted a national outpouring of grief that inspired artists, writers and orators across the United States to commemorate the life of America's first president.

In Baltimore, church bells tolled continuously as thousands of mourners wound through the streets in solemn procession. In Frederick, orators eulogized the Revolutionary War hero and father of his country.

Maryland's reaction to Washington's death is recalled through artworks large and small in an exhibition that opens today at the Maryland Historical Society.

"Our Washington is No More!: Maryland Reveres George Washington, 1799-1829" chronicles the period of deep mourning in the months immediately following Washington's death and the ongoing commemoration of his life and accomplishments.

The exhibition features furniture, paintings, ceramics, rare documents and prints created to meet the huge demand for Washington memorabilia. As general, Washington had led them to independence, and as president he put the infant federal government on a firm foundation. Americans revered him for his honor, integrity and virtue.

During his lifetime, Washington's image appeared on a huge variety of objects, from coins, medals, quilts and bedspreads to flags, handkerchiefs and pottery.

After his death, English potters produced enormous quantities of commemorative porcelain jugs, bowls and plates with Washington's picture, often including sentimental slogans such as "Washington in Glory -- America in Tears" to respond to the national mood of mourning. The pieces were shipped to Baltimore and other ports, where shopkeepers eagerly advertised their arrival.

A group of Baltimore businessmen commissioned the Italian sculptor Antonio Capellano to produce a marble portrait bust of Washington, patterned after a painting by Maryland artist Rembrandt Peale. The bust was presented to the Baltimore City Council to decorate its chambers in 1823.

Marylanders also built two major monuments to Washington's memory. In Mount Vernon Square, Baltimore erected the stately column designed by Robert Mills, which was begun in 1815 and completed in 1829. In Boonsboro, Washington County, citizens assembled another monument from local stones in 1827.

No wonder Philadelphia printmaker David Edwin's hand-colored engraving "The Apotheosis of Washington" depicted the fallen leader being borne aloft to heaven from Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation, by allegorical figures representing Time and Immortality. As this show reminds us, by the time of his death, Washington was widely regarded as nothing less than a secular saint.

Mourning memories

What: "Washington is No More!: Maryland Reveres George Washington, 1799-1829"

Where: Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.Sunday; through Feb. 27

Admission: $4 adults, $3 students and seniors, free on Sunday

Call: 410-685-3750

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