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Portrait may be hidden treasure

July 23, 2002|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Is that really a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington on the wall at the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library?

Maybe.

Barry Hagen of Hagen and Hagen Appraisers Inc. in New Market, Md., who appraised the painting for the library, said it's possible, but he can't be sure.

Nancy Pollak of Art Care Associates in Frederick, Md., who restored the painting for the library, said it is "strikingly similar" to Stuart's well-known portraits of Washington.

The library found out about its possible treasure after restoring the Washington portrait and another painting: N.C. Wyeth's "Christmas in Old Virginia," which depicts a festive winter scene as Washington receives a Christmas tree at his Mount Vernon home.

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Young adult librarian and exhibits coordinator Jane Levitan said the library thought first about restoring the Wyeth painting, but decided to go ahead with the damaged Washington portrait, too.

Someone had used a white liquid, possibly correction fluid, to draw a small Nike "swoosh" on the breast of Washington's dark coat.

Also, both oil paintings were covered with a layer of grime. The Wyeth painting had sat for a while in the basement of the former Interwoven mill in Martinsburg.

A grant covered part of the cost of the restorations.

Stuart was known as "The Father of American Portraiture" for his paintings of notable subjects during the Federal period, according to the National Gallery of Art.

One of his portraits of Washington was the basis for his likeness on the $1 bill.

The library was surprised to hear that that the paintings are "extremely valuable - as pieces of art, as well as monetarily speaking," Levitan said.

The restoration of the paintings is exciting and ties in well with a national Washington exhibit that will stop at the library next May and stay about six weeks, she said.

"This was part of getting our Georges prettied up for that event," Levitan said.

The library has arranged a series of lectures and events corresponding with the exhibit, which will feature pictures of rare documents and texts.

Author and journalist Jim Lehrer of Charles Town, W.Va., is scheduled to speak.

Jane Merritt, a textile conservator for the National Park Service, is expected to present a slide show. The National Park Service has a silk Washington inaugural suit.

Levitan said the Fine family donated the Washington portrait to the library, but she's not sure when. It's about 30 inches high and 25 inches wide.

Wyeth painted the Mount Vernon scene in 1927 for the Interwoven mill, which used it on sock packages, Levitan said.

It measures about 60 inches high by about 143 inches wide. It was shorter when Wyeth first painted it; at some point, he extended it on all four sides.

After the Interwoven mill closed down, the new owner of the building donated the "quite dirty" painting to the library in the 1970s, Levitan said.

The Washington portrait was hung in the library over a second-floor mantel. It was reachable, which is how it was defaced, Levitan said.

Now, the portrait hangs on the first floor, about 12 feet high, over shelves of encyclopedias and other reference books.

The Wyeth scene is a few feet away on an adjacent wall, above a group of stress management and psychology books. A photograph has been sent to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., which specializes in Wyeth family art.

Last year, the West Virginia Commission on the Arts awarded the library a $3,520 grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and the National Endowment for the Arts to restore the two paintings.

Levitan said the library board matched the grant amount.

Hagen drove to Martinsburg to look at the paintings.

He said the Washington portrait matches Stuart's style of rosy cheeks and weak hands.

The Mount Vernon scene was "terrific," Hagen said.

Pollak said the Washington portrait had been treated before, but the Mount Vernon scene hadn't.

When the portrait was last restored, some of Washington's face was touched up and the background was made "a uniform dark brown."

Levitan said the dark background blended in with Washington's dark coat, giving the appearance that his head was floating in space.

Through her work, Pollak made the contrast stronger, so Washington's torso is more obvious.

If the portrait was not Stuart's, it's almost certainly the "school of Stuart," Pollak and Hagen agreed.

"It's definitely that same pose that Stuart used," Pollak said.

As for the Mount Vernon scene, "You can see Wyeth's hand," she said. "He was so sure in the way he painted."

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