Treasures of the Winterthur on a rare visit to Washington

For the dedicated antiques enthusiast, a treasure trove of American historical objects and art is found in the splendid isolation of Henry Francis du Pont's Winterthur Museum in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware. Those who make the pilgrimage to the estate house du Pont enlarged into a museum can feast their eyes on what is probably the finest collection of exclusively American antiques in the United States.

Now, for the first time, the essence of Winterthur has traveled. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of du Pont's museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington is exhibiting the best and the brightest of the Winterthur collection.

Fine specimens of antique silver, imposing highboys, silk-threaded needlepoint pictures, and historic paintings have been selected from the 85,000 objects owned by Winterthur for "An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont's Winterthur Museum" on display until Oct. 6.

It was the all-American aesthetic – a marriage of simplicity and elegance rivaling the splendor of its European antecedents – that captivated young Henry du Pont and motivated him to present in his museum more than just a store of valuable objects, but the mood and atmosphere of the past.

This mood is most poignantly conveyed to contemporary America in a room at the exhibit devoted to objects commemorating the newly minted patriotism born at the founding of the republic. Intermingled with the antiques are splendid canvases.

"Washington at Verplanck's Point," by John Trumbull, one of America's finest historical painters, is a small but beautiful example. The likeness of Washington is said to be one of the most accurate ever painted. This is no surprise, considering that Trumbull, son of the governor of Connecticut, was a family friend of Washington. In fact, Trumbull served as an aide to Washington early in the Revolutionary War.

"Sat from 9 o'clock to after 10 for ... Trumbull who was drawing a portrait of me which he intended to present to Mrs. Washington," Washington wrote in his diary for July 8, 1790.

The general, in almost casual pose, exudes the ruddy confidence of the leader who became father of his country. Trumbull has placed him on a hill, conveying the sense of an apex of experience. The sky is bright and the clouds plump, echoing the subject's air of optimism. "The background represents the encampment of the American Army at Verplanck's Point on the North River in 1782," Trumbull wrote, "and the reception there ... of the French Army returning from the capture of Yorktown." The artist has captured an image of the American spirit emerging from the darkness of war into nationhood, well fortified to meet the challenges ahead. It is one example of how the "American Vision" of Winterthur can inspire us today.

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