Mayor Kevin H. White took his fight of local culture to court here yesterday to stop the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery from "plundering the landscape" by buying and taking to Washington two of the nation's most famous paintings - Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George and Martha Washington.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has set tomorrow to hear the city's request for a preliminary injunction, filed yesterday, to block the $5-million sale of the portraits by the financially beleaguered Boston Athenaeum.
"What arrogance," said Mayor White, whose battle to keep the paintings in Boston has escalated into a war between his city and Washington. "I want to send them a line that Washington has to culture-they have to buy it."
"I think the country loses its fabric if you bring all of its historical works and center them all in one place; that's what (Hermann) Goering did," White told a news conference after meeting with attorneys and museum officials from both cities.
Marvin Sadik, director of the National Portrait Gallery, returned to Washington after the session to relay the mayor's remarks and to seek a final answer from the Smithsonian's board of trustees. He said earlier that the paintings were historically invaluable and, "If there are any pictures the gallery should have, it's these." The purchase agreement, he said, is 99 percent complete."
"I really think a national museum does itself great damage if their portraits and their gallery is only built on their ability to pay.... It's just going out and plundering the landscape," White said.
"We did serve notice that we felt very strongly that these paintings belong here and the National Museum would be making an error to try and just buy culture," he said. "It shows that we still care; that we don't just submit and roll over."
The suit maintains that the portraits, painted by Stuart during Washington's second term, were purchased for $1,500 in 1831, partially by public subscription. That created, in effect, a public charitable trust that only the Massachusetts attorney general can administer, according to the suit.
The trust was formed, the legal brief claimed, "for the express purpose of acquiring the paintings in honor of the first president so that they might be available for the use and enjoyment of the citizens of the city of Boston."
"We would be glad to lend them [to the Smithsonian] on occasion," White said.
The portraits are to return to Boston for one year out of every five during the next 50 years, according to the agreement worked out among the Smithsonian, the Atheneum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which borrowed the paintings in 1876 and has hung them in its main rotunda ever since.
The Athenaeum helped found the Boston Museum in 1870 and has lent it a number of paintings over the years. Now, however, the poorly endowed Athenaeum, stricken with rising costs and badly in need of repairs, must sell the Washington portraits to offset its $130,000-a-year operating deficit, according to museum officials.
Mayor White has been meeting with representatives from the Athenaeum in an effort to find a way to meet the museum's financial needs and prevent the sale of the paintings to the Smithsonian. He even has offered to head a public subscription drive.
"If we follow the reasoning of Washington then they have a right to the Constitution or to any historical property of great value...[then] in their largesse or generosity they would lend them back to the various places from which they were taken periodically," said White. "I think there is something fundamentally wrong there."
White's arguments were bolstered by an editorial in The Boston Globe entitled, "Keep the Washingtons in Boston," which stated, "The proposed deal is akin to, say, selling Faneuil Hall to the state of Arizona as a tourist attraction..."
Responding to an editorial in yesterday's editions of The Washington Post, headlined "Free George and Martha," which humorously chided Bostonians for their sensitivity about letting anything leave their city, White said: "no, not our spirit and not our heritage." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 5, Matched portraits by Gilbert Stuart of this nation's first five presidents, left to right: top, George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; right, James Madison and James Monroe.; picture 6, 7, Gilbert Stuart's unfinished portraits of Martha and George Washington