That the citizens of Boston should be concerned about the relocation of the Athenaeum portraits from their city to the nation's capital is an attitude that I can appreacite. After all, I have made no secret of my belief that these paintings of George and Martha Washington by Gilbert Stuart are the greatest of all American historical portraits. It is, however, for the very reason that these portraits are what they are that I am convinced they justly belong in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Stuart never parted with these portraits, which he painted in 1796, although he made a considerable number of replicas of the George Washington painting, which has become the most familiar image of the Foundating Father of our country. In 1831, three years after the artist's death in Boston, the original portraits were acquired from his widow and daughter for the Athenaeum. The two pictures were bought for $1,500, of which $800 remained from funds collected by the Washington Monument Association for a statue of the nation's first president, dedicated in the Massachusetts statehouse in 1827; and $700 came from a group of gentlemen, some of whom belonged both to the Athenaeum and the Washington Monument Association. The portraits have been on loan from the Athenaeum to the Boston Museum since 1876.
At the time Stuart's widow sold the portraits, there was no national repository for historically significant likenesses. The National Portrait Gallery, established by act of Congress in 1962 as a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, opened to the public in the fall of 1968. The gallery has annually held major exhibitions on a wide range of American historical topics, each accompanied by a full-scale publication: has built, through gift and purchase (with both federal and private funds) a permanent collection, which now consists of nearly 2,000 portraits; and has attracted an ever-increasing number of visitors, from85,000 in its first year to nearly half a million last year. However, there is no doubt that the gallery suffers from the lack of many portraits of nationally significant persons that would have come to it had it been established nearer in time to the founding of the republic. Of these, the Athenaeum portraits unquestionably are preminent.
During the 14 months that have elapsed since negotiations between the Boston Athenaeum and the National Portrait Gallery began, the Boston Museum has been kept fully apprised of the matter through its president, Dr. Howard Johnson. The board of the Boston Athenaeum, the regents of the Smithsonian Institution and the members of the National Portrait Gallery Commission, as a part of their agreement concerning the Athenaenum portraits, have made provisions to lend the portraits back to Massachusetts (with primary consideration to be given to the Boston Museum); and it is our understanding that these arrangements are acceptable to Dr. Johnson and the Members of the executive committee of the board of the Boston Museum.
When the portraits are relinquished to the nation's capital, nothing that is uniquely the patrimony of Boston willbe surrendered. The Athenaeum portraits were not painted in Boston, but rather where the subjects resided in 1796 when Washington was in his second term as president, in Philadelphia, then the temporary capital of the United States. Washington's greatest moment in Boston, his defense of the city during the American Revolution, was fittingly commemorated in a full-length portrait entitled "Washington at Dorchester Heights,)" which Gillbert Stuart painted expressly for the city of Boston.
This immense canvas, which hung for 71 years in Faneuil Hall, has, like the Athenaeum portraits, been displayed since 1876 in the Boston Museum.
It is not only Boston's history as the scene of momentous and sacred events that lends the Athenaeum portraits their towering significance. History makes similar claims for Trenton, or Yorktown, or New York, or Philadelphia or Virginia. Rather, it is the whole of the American tradition that invests these portraits with meaning. It was precisely to encompass all such ties that the national capital was established. It seems to me ineluctably right that these precious icons should at long last reside in the National Portrait Gallery, which occupies the very site L,Enfant in his original plan for the city designated for a Pantheon to honor the nation's immortals. Here the portraits will be displayed two blocks from the National Archives, where the only other American treasures of comparable significance, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, are enshrined-in the nation's capital, the city of Washington. CAPTION: Picture, no caption