Silhouettes to Selfies: Slow Art, Fast Change


Silh-Selfies GIF, 175x139

Join us, June 4, 2015 at 6 p.m. for a cocktail kick-off!

Portraits: Trying to Tell Us Something

Portraits are a mainstay of any Tudor Place house tour, useful for identifying family members, workers, prominent friends, and others who animate the site’s history. In any medium, likenesses help us learn the site’s stories. But examined closely, these works can tell us far more than just “who” and “with whom.” A newly opened installation, Silhouettes to Selfies: Capturing Portraits Over Time, on view through August 2015, looks at two centuries of technology, custom, and attitudes in the way we depict ourselves. In the garden, visitors are invited to “frame” their memories photographically — and consider how our perceptions of place change when we wield cameras — by snapping selfies and portraits using one of the outdoor Photo Frames that dot the landscape for the duration of the installation.

A family home, the historic house abounds with likenesses of those who spent time here and (as with depictions of Martha and George Washington) their forebears. Of the approximately 2,200 works in the fine art collection they left to the museum, over 100 are likenesses of people who lived on, visited, or worked on the estate. Among the collection’s 4,000 photographs, 334 are portraits of the Peters, their servants, friends and kin, even pets, from a rare 1850s daguerreotype to mid 20th-century prints made with Kodak equipment. The collections’ portraits vary in material, quality and expense, from early 19th-century cut paper silhouettes of Martha and Thomas Peter’s daughters, America (“Meck”) and Columbia (“Lum”), to formal oil-on-canvas self-portraits by Armistead Peter 3rd from the mid-1900s.

On View in House and Garden

Regular guided tours during the installation will feature these as well as art and artifacts not on permanent exhibition. In the garden, three strategically placed Portrait Frames invite viewers to “frame” portraits of place and of themselves in it — an entertaining new way to interact with the landscape and the architecturally significant house designed by Dr. William Thornton. Inside the historic house, photographic equipment from the early 1900s through the era of the Polaroid will be on view in the Butler’s Pantry; that might seem an odd setting, only until you learn the space had served as a family darkroom before the house’s renovation in 1914. In the Office, visitors will see works by author and artist Marietta Minigerode Andrews, arrayed on the desk of her friend Armistead Peter, Jr.  Minnigeroode, who was ambidextrous, presented him with a book about her paper-cutting art, also on view. (Her grandfather, Charles Minigerode, was a German immigrant and classics scholar who rose to a prominent Episcopal pulpit in Richmond from which he counseled Jefferson Davis, earning the nickname “Father Confessor of the Confederacy.” as recounted by Colonial Williamsburg historian Harold B. Gill, Jr.)

As part of the installation, Tudor Place joined the worldwide movement of Slow Art Day, on Saturday, April 11, inviting visitors for special focus on four key portraits from the collection in a program that paired old-fashioned observation with music, conversation, and sketching. A group lunch was included, making for an unusual (and social) experience in art appreciation. Each portrait of four carefully chosen pieces, in different media and tied to the house and its history, was studied for 15 minutes each. They included an oil painting, a watercolor, a plaster bust, and a photograph, featuring mixed generations and solo subjects, images of different eras, and even a nod to another continent.

Preserving Portraits and Plumbing Their Secrets

While portraits can be counted on to live on after their subjects, they too, are subject to the ravages of time. In collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, Tudor Place recently conducted conservation analysis on its important portrait of founder Thomas Peter. X-ray fluorescence spectometry shed light on past “improvements” and repairs that had obscured significant details of the sitter’s clothes, setting, and symbols of his status embedded in the original portrait, indicating that further conservation work might reveal more about the painting’s original design. With generous support from the MARPAT Foundation, Tudor Place also conserved seven other painted portraits this year: John Parke Custis IV, ca. 1725; William G. Williams’s Self-Portrait; Williams’s painting of his wife , America Peter Williams and Son Laurence, ca. 1833; and three paintings by Armistead Peter 3rd — a double portrait of his wife and daughter from 1932, his 1949 Self-portrait in naval uniform, and a portrait of his wife from 1925 in a green cloche hat. And the museum also took steps recently to conserve rare 1850s daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes, and ivorytypes in the collection — all predecessors of print and, now, digital photography.

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“Gentleman of Georgetown:” Thomas Peter’s Portrait Assessed

Spectrometry revealed hidden layers in Thomas Peter's portrait.

Spectrometry revealed changes over time in Thomas Peter’s portrait.

When Tudor Place founder Thomas Peter sat for an oil portrait in the 1830s, riding crop in hand, the painter took pains to show him as a gentleman at ease. Recent conservation assessment of this significant Tudor Place painting, assumed to be by Peter’s son-in-law William G. Williams, found that past “improvements” and restorations, careful and well intentioned though they may have been, left their mark — and in some cases obscured the painter’s design. Conservation and removal of these later alterations revealed everything from an obscured equestrian scene to changes in the subject’s very dress. More recently, x-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry further defined what elements are present in the painting, and therefore possibly some pigments which may have been used by the artist.  Further information will be gained by special imaging techniques, including X-radiographs, infrared photography, and high-resolution UV photography.  It is perhaps an irony of progress that it takes modern photographic techniques to “restore” the lost elements of Williams’s design, but they also offer hope that enough of the original paint layers remain to make further conservation treatment worthwhile.

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“Make-Over” of a Rare Daguerreotype: Martha Parke Custis Peter and Granddaughter

Martha Peter Daguerreotype
To save an 1850s daguerreotype, a portrait of Tudor Place founder Martha Parke Custis Peter (1777-1854) with granddaughter Martha Custis Kennon (1843-1886), conservation took place early this year. Martha Peter’s father, John Parke (“Jacky”) Custis (1754-1781), was Martha Washington’s son from her first marriage. She and George Washington raised him at Mount Vernon, which is where Martha Peter — who appears in the daguerrotype as an old woman — was born. The Tudor Place daguuerreotype is one of only two known photographs of a grandchild of Martha Washington; the other is in the Library of Congress.

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Tudor Place Times · Spring 2015