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The Presidential Portraits That Went Up in Flames in 1851

Just before 8 a.m. on Christmas Eve at 1851, the captain of the Capitol police was making his rounds when he smelled smoke outside the door to the Library of Congress which, at that moment, was placed at the Capitol building. He broke open the door and discovered that a raging fire consuming the furniture and books at one end of the space.

From there, the modern newspaper reports read as a member of a comedy of errors.

Captain John W. Jones originally believed that the fire could be put out with “using a half dozen buckets of water” He and many others who rushed to his help gave this approach their best effort.

But after working for one hour or two– reports say their attempt at heroism lasted for over a complete hourthey gave up and eventually sent someone running to the fire department.

But the fire department had only returned from a night fighting a nearby resort blaze and they allegedly were not inclined to believe the chosen messenger there was actually an issue raging in the Capitol. “because of the improbability of his report, it was not till after considerable delay he could secure any help from them,” the North Carolina Standard reported.

When the firemen eventually arrived in the scene, they found the intense winter temperatures had suspended the water inside their hoses. So, of course, they spent some time warming up their gear to get it back up and running.

In spite of this series of occasions, the Burlington Free Press reported the complete power of the Washington fire department as well as a firm from Alexandria were available “rendering efficient services”

As the smoke began to clear on the “blackened mass of ruins,” the degree of the cultural damage has been revealed. Two-thirds of the library’s 55,000-book literary collection had been destroyed, as well as an range of maps, newspapers, and art. Among the latter were three paintings of the country’s first few presidents from the artist regarded as the greatest American portraitist, Gilbert Stuart.

Stuart was born in Rhode Island in 1755, and, by all accounts, his artistic talent was apparent from an early age; from 13, he had been painting portraits of the high society of Newport. Wanting to cultivate his careerand sensing war on the horizon–Stuart decamped for England in early 1775. He conveniently stayed away for 17 years, apprenticing under painters and creating a name for himself as a superior portraitist abroad.

“He who had gone away a poor lad to seek his fortune had come back a thriving guy with a European reputation, and he had been besieged with patrons”

But watching his native country in Dublin, where he had been situated at the moment, he had a powerful urge to paint the very first president. So he made his way back into the United States, where nobody seemed to hold a grudge he had abandoned his country and decamped to enemy lands during the bloody war for independence.

“He who had gone away a poor lad to seek his fortune had come back a thriving guy with a European reputation, and instantly he had been surrounded with patrons,” read a retrospective part in The San Francisco Phone at 1900.

George Washington sat to his original portrait by Gilbert Stuart in Philadelphia in 1795. According to early reports, “it created a fantastic sensation.”

Portraits of America’s very first forefather would become Stuart’s “nest egg” In this long-ago period before the advent of photography, possessing copies of famous paintings of the leading American figures was the rage. So Stuart would use his first paintings because the manual for duplicates he’d promote widely.

These duplicates brought in a lot of money, so much so, that Stuart got into a bit of trouble when putting his work. Among his most famous paintings of Washington is referred to as The Athenaeum, and it had been striking that it had been used as the image that is still published on the $1 bill today.

But Stuart became so busy copying his bust of Washington, he never actually finished the original painting. When he died in 1828, The Athenaeum remained one of his incomplete canvases.

“Without the slightest cause he’d leave a picture and nothing, not even a girl’s tears, could cause him to continue.”

Like those who have fought with the perils of fame, Stuart was a complicated guy.

According to The San Francisco Phone, “He had a curious disposition; occasionally he had been the most charming of men; in others irritable and rough. He made many enemies as well as alienated friends who understood the real warmth of his heart; without the slightest cause he’d leave a picture and nothing, not even a lady’s tears, could cause him to continue; even though a superb moneymaker, he died poor, leaving his family entirely unprovided for.”

Even his most famous patrons fought to make him meet his duties. Thomas Jefferson sat for Stuart for the first time in May of 1800, and again in 1805. It’d be 21 years from that sitting until he eventually received delivery of a few of the several portraits that Stuart painted (and that Jefferson had compensated for).

“Speaking generally, no penance is similar to having one’s picture done. You have to sit at a constrained and unnatural position, which will be a trial into the mood.”

But despite his sometimes difficult nature, Stuart wasn’t a totally unpleasant artist to pose for. According to John Adams,”Speaking generally, no penance is similar to having one’s picture done. You have to sit at a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial into the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart in the first of January to the last of December, because lets me do just what I please, and keeps me always amused by his own conversation.”

Stuart made many portraits of the early presidents of the USA, and among these he completed at least 2 series of seated portraits of their first five.

One of these series was on loan to the Library of Congress in 1851 when a defective flue linking the basement furnace into the library’s quarters went up in flames.

Among the newspapers and books burned to a sharp were the honorable portraits of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson painted by “the greatest of the early American painters and certainly one of the most remarkable of the art products of this country.”

In a statement given after that tragic December day, the head librarian, John S. Meehan, said that the events were the more troubling to him “as no fires have been used at [the library] for quite a while, and no candles, lamps, or other lights have been used inside during the entire time it has been under my charge.” Regrettably, nobody checked the flue.

In the long run, the Library of Congress disaster finished and could be anticipated. Congress authorized funds to replace the lost books, and in 1897, it had been relocated into a building of its own.

But the events of 1851 were all the more unfortunate given that this wasn’t the first time disaster had struck the country’s literary archives.

When the British stormed D.C. in 1814 during the War of 1812, they burned down the Capitol, for instance, ancient Library of Congress and it’s 3,000 volumes. In response to this occasion, Jefferson donated a large part of his private library to function as the base of the reestablished collection. A lot of this was dropped in the fire 37 years later.

“He died in debt, and, with no capital to bury him properly, his family has been forced to inter him in an unmarked grave.”

Stuart’s three paintings weren’t the only aspect of the artist’s work to end in catastrophe. Despite his sterling reputation as one of the preeminent painters in the country, Stuart never got a handle on his money issues. He earned an unbelievable profit over his lifetime, but he was just plain awful in business.

He died in debt, and, with no capital to bury him properly, his family has been forced to inter him in an unmarked grave. When they eventually did raise the money to transfer him into some nicer–and marked–resting position, they discovered that nobody remembered where precisely he had been buried.

But 190 years following his death, men and women in the USA and around the globe continue to exchange American dollar bills, all clearly marked by Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington.

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