Art gallery brings together historic duo

George and Martha Washington are finally reunited — at the Yale University Art Gallery.

The gallery recently acquired an 1801 miniature painting of George Washington by British painter Robert Field. The watercolor on ivory miniature is the complement of a miniature of Martha Washington already owned by the Art Gallery. The purchase, made through the Boston auctioneers Skinner, cost Yale $303,000.

This miniature of George Washington was commissioned upon his death by Martha Washington as part of a series of family miniatures intended to commemorate the loss of beloved relatives. It depicts Washington in a dark navy military uniform with a salmon-colored collar. The reverse of the miniature incorporates the braided hair of Washington beneath his initials in cut gold.

Robin Jaffee Frank, the curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the gallery, said the acquisition was important because of its beauty and rarity as well as its place in American art history.

“It is beautifully painted; the curving contours make the structure of the face glow through,” said Jaffee Frank. “We have an outstanding collection of American paintings, but a miniature is different because it is uniquely personal. [The Washington miniature] testifies to the history of American personal life.”

A family relic, the piece had not been on the market until recently. When Frank found out that it was going to be auctioned, she said she immediately recognized its importance.

Although the price of purchase was considerable — it was 10 times the auction estimate — especially at a time of a worldwide financial crisis, chief curator and acting director at the gallery Susan Matheson said gallery acquisitions remain unaffected by economic hardships at this point.

“The funds for our acquisitions come from specific endowments that are marvelously managed and do not depend on the generosity of individuals,” Matheson said. “Anything true for the University endowment will hold true for us.”

Matheson said art market prices might in fact go down because of the recession, though she added that such a decline in prices generally affects only works of lower quality, while high quality pieces hold their value.

Yet, even for highly valued pieces, the prices at auctions have been lower than expected. And, paintings by renowned artists, such as Claude Monet, Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse and Francis Bacon, were left unsold at auctions in the past month, according to The New York Times.

Still, the Art Gallery is always financially careful in planning purchases. The gallery generally does not purchase at auctions because of the difficulty of checking the condition of the piece and ascertaining its particulars under time constraint, Frank said. The Washington miniature was an exception because of the rarity of the piece and its significance, she said.

Theresa Fairbanks-Harris, the chief conservator of works on paper at the Yale Center for British Art, accompanied Frank to Boston to examine the condition and authenticity of the miniature.

“I was dumbstruck by its good condition,” Fairbanks-Harris said. “The family preserved it in a leather case and kept it away from direct sunlight, so the colors were vibrant and unfaded although watercolor is so unstable.”

The miniature, which has never been on public display before, is currently in storage, but will be exhibited in February at the Seattle Art Museum as part of the Yale University Art Gallery’s traveling exhibition “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

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