CENTERPORT: The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is displaying two artifacts in honor of Presidents Day, Feb. 17 – an oil portrait of George Washington and a letter to the mayor of New York City from Abraham Lincoln. The pieces are on view in the main hallway of the Vanderbilt Museum Nursery Wing through the end of February.
President Lincoln wrote the letter to Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City, just after the start of the Civil War on May 4, 1861. Wood (1812-1881), who built a successful shipping enterprise in New York City, served several terms in Congress and was mayor of New York for two terms, 1854-58 and 1860-62.
The letter was in response to a letter Wood wrote to Lincoln shortly after the Fort Sumter attack, offering him whatever military services he, as mayor, could provide. Lincoln’s reply to Wood was in gratitude for his offer of assistance.
The Vanderbilt Museum Curatorial Department has no record of how this letter came to be in William Vanderbilt II’s possession. Originally, it may have been the property of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was an acquaintance of Wood, and could have been passed down through the Vanderbilt family.
The Vanderbilt’s framed oil portrait of George Washington, though unsigned and undated, was believed to have been painted by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), widely considered one of America’s foremost portrait artists.
Stuart produced portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six presidents of the United States. He painted a number of Washington portraits. The most celebrated is known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796), and one large-scale version of it hangs in the East Room of the White House.
Stuart’s best-known work is an unfinished portrait of Washington begun in 1796 and sometimes called “The Athenaeum.” This image of Washington’s head and shoulders is a familiar one to Americans — it has appeared for more than a century on the U.S. one-dollar bill.
The Vanderbilt’s Washington portrait, found in the basement of the Suffolk County Welfare Department Home in Yaphank, was restored and presented to the Vanderbilt Museum in 1951. While the artist did not sign the work, a specialist reported that year that the painting was an authentic Gilbert Stuart.
In 1981, however, two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art studied the portrait and advised the board of trustees that the work was not created by Stuart. As a result, the portrait, oil on panel and measuring 21.25 by 33.5 inches, is described in the archival records as “After Gilbert Stuart.” The curators’ closest estimate was that the painting was made sometime in the 1800s.
The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. Winter hours for the museum, mansion and grounds are Saturdays and Sundays from 11:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Tuesdays from noon to 4 p.m. with special winter recess hours from Feb. 17 to 21 from 11:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.