Archives For Sound & Sense: Poetic Musings in American Art

George Washington… poet.

Poet?

Yes, I know.

The descriptor that follows George Washington is usually something like:

….statesman.
….leader.
….patriot.
….father of our country.

While poet is not a word usually used to describe Washington, a visit to an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, suggests Washington was gifted in expressing his romantic sentiments through verse.

The exhibit titled Sound & Sense: Poetic Musings in American Art (November 14, 2015 – April 17, 2016). The installation

“…explores the connections between American poetry and painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The exhibition presents a diverse landscape of masterpieces from the museum’s collection that incorporate poetic inscriptions in their composition or have direct relationships to America’s rich poetic traditions….”

In the exhibition, a painting by Rockwell Kent and sculpture by Daniel Chester French are paired (predictably) with verses by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. The walls are painted a soft grey with generous space allotted between each object and its curated verse. The space allows the viewer to appreciate each new composition of word and art.

On one wall, the portraits of Martha (left) and George Washington (right) are placed so they appear to be gazing at each other. Moreover, at first glance, the poem appears to be a a expression of George’s love for Martha. However, the note above Washington’s verse explains the sentiment was taken from a personal letter 1749-50, nine years before he married Martha. IMG_0028

 

The verse placed on the wall reads:

From your sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays you have, more powerful than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day
None can you equal in your bright array

The text next to the portraits -painted by James Sharples (1798)- explains that at the time the letter was written, Washington was a “lovesick teenager” who “penned a passionate sentimental verse to an unknown maiden” before he served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

Historians suggest that young Washington had crushed on several young women including Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend. Regardless, the evidence that Washington had dabbled in romantic poetry in addition to the genres of letter-writing and speeches, speaks to his early comfort with expressing himself with the written word.

Granted, the comparison of the maiden in question with the sun is not terribly original. Shakespeare used the comparison in a more surprising manner when he began Sonnet 130 with the line

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

But Washington’s conceit, or extended metaphor, does reveal his sophistication in convincing the maiden the depth and sincerity of his affections.

IMG_0026

Pastels on paper; James Sharples (1798) bequest of Daniel Wadsworth; property of Wadsworth Atheneum

On January 6, 1759, Washington, age 27, married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, age 28 years old. According to historians, their marriage was successful, and the union increased Washington’s property holdings and social standing. He acquired a portion of the Custis estate upon his marriage, worth about $100,000 at the time. Although he and Martha never had children of their own, he cared for Martha’s two children from her previous marriage.

On this extended weekend (2/13-2/15/16) , one that combines Valentine’s Day with President’s Day, we have yet one more reason to celebrate George Washington, our first President, and our first Poet-in-Chief.