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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

La Sirene (The Mermaid) Chair

Mermaids have appeared in the legends and folklore of various cultures around the world and throughout time: especially among seafaring peoples.  The Egyptians and Greeks, Chinese, Western Europeans, and West Africans all have tales of this half–woman, half–fish mythical creature.  Protective yet dangerous, mermaids are depicted as beauties with long flowing hair capable of creating great storms to wreck ships or warning sailors of forthcoming disaster.

Historically, these mysterious creatures “have been subjects of art and literature.” In Haitian culture, mermaids are known as La Sirene and are also subjects in the work of artists and craftsmen.

The mermaid chair pictured above was carved by contemporary Haitian-American furniture-maker, Mecene Jacques.  It was included in the traveling exhibition America’s Smithsonian:  Celebrating 150 Years in 1996 and in Buried Treasures: Art of African American Museums at the DuSable Museum of African American History in 2013.  The chair is part of the Anacostia Community Museum permanent collection and was first exhibited in Black Mosaic: Community, Race, and Ethnicity among Black Immigrants in Washington, DC.

Mecene Jacques working in his studio (top) and the unfinished mermaid chair (bottom).  Anacostia Communit Museum Archives, Black Mosaic exhibition records,Smithsonian Institution. Photographs by Harold Dorwin.

Mecene Jacques immigrated to the United States during the economic and political turmoil that embroiled Haiti in the 1990s.  Like many other Haitian immigrants, Jacques brought to this country not only his craft and skills, but also a creative vision fueled by the folklore and vibrant cultural traditions of Haiti.

Jennifer Morris
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Movember and No Shave November Mustaches from the Archives of American Gardens

In honor of Movember and No Shave November, the Archives of American Gardens' honors the men behind some of America's most unique parks and gardens. These men sport some great facial hair!

This autochrome shows Alfred D. Robinson surrounded by his prized begonias at his home, Rosecroft, in San Diego, California. Robinson cultivated hundreds of varieties of begonias and was also a founder and first president of the San Diego Floral Association. The garden surrounding Robinson’s home sat on ten acres of land which has now been subdivided into multiple properties. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection. (AAG# CA142001)

Two gardeners creating a carpet bedding design at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Connecticut, America’s first municipal rose garden, early 20th century. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection. (AAG# CT060001)

Charles Sprague Sargent, pictured here examining Quercus (oak) herbarium specimens, was appointed director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum in 1872. Sargent collaborated with well-known landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the arboretum creating a space for exceptional research and recreation. Photo by T.E. Marr, 1904. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection. (AAG# MA033024)

Catherine Bell
Archives of American Gardens 2014 Intern
Smithsonian Gardens

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Civil War Decision Makers: John W. Garrett Commits the B&O

Executive decision-making has been much in the news.
John Work Garrett, 1820-1884
During the Civil War, John W. Garrett, President of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, made a crucial business decision which affected the course of the war.  Despite being personally sympathetic to the Confederate cause, with Jubal Early’s men circling north toward Martinsburg and Cumberland and threatening the B&O, on February 1, 1864, Garrett wrote to Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, offering the services of his railroad to transport Union troops:

“…Immediate re-inforcements [sic] appear to be required. I have ordered vigorous preparations to be made for the transportation of troops from Washington and Baltimore…”

Letter from John Work Garrett to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Feb. 1, 1864.
From the Baltimore & Ohio Records, Misc. Correspondence, Box 2, Folder 10.
Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Choosing the winning side facilitated the B & O’s post-war success in retrieving property stolen by Confederate troops.  As the Confederates circled north they were amazed to find fourteen locomotives in the B & O sheds in Martinsburg, West Virginia. A handwritten manuscript in our B & O Records entitled “The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad: Adventures of A Railroad During the Civil War” tells the story:

Locomotives Moved Over Turnpike Roads to Richmond
The Confederates had almost undisturbed possession of 100 miles of the [rail]road west of Harpers Ferry, during which time they destroyed all the bridges between that place and Cumberland, and took up and removed to Richmond the iron rails of 40 miles of the track. They also conveyed to Richmond 14 valuable locomotives, in perfect order, which they found in the company’s repair shops at Martinsburg. They accomplished this novel task with extraordinary perseverance and great mechanical skill, as they had to transport these heavy locomotives over the turnpike roads on their own wheels to Strasburg, a distance of fully 40 miles.

According to the B & O Engine Shop Records, the company got twelve of the fourteen locomotives back in 1865:

 “All 12 captured locos back in shop. 2 never returned 34 and 50.”

Christine Windheuser, Volunteer, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How to Hatch Your Dragon! The First Komodo Dragons Born at the National Zoo in 1992

Komodo dragon at the National Zoo displays its tongue that has scent receptors for hunting. “Kracken” is all grown up now in her new 620 square foot outdoor enclosure, attached to its 714 square foot indoor enclosure, September 10, 2002, photograph by Jessie Cohen. National Zoological Park photograph collection. Negative # NZP-20020910-3394JC
As fall approaches, we think of nature as quieting down for the winter; while spring is the season for baby booms. But such was not the case on September 13, 1992, when the National Zoo’s Komodo dragon eggs began to hatch, the first ever dragons born outside of their native Indonesia!  As children know from the adventures of Hiccup, the Viking boy in the popular books and movie series, How to Train Your Dragon, the successful rearing of dragons requires study, devoted care, and cooperation between different groups, and such was the case here.

Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) are the largest of the lizards in the modern world.  They bear a distinct similarity to their dinosaur ancestors, and are fierce fighters.  Male dragons reach a length of 10 feet and can weigh 300 pounds. The largest known specimen was 10.3 feet or 3.13 meters and weighed in at 366 pounds or 166 kg. Although the Komodo can sprint at 13 mph (20 kph), they hunt using a strategy based on stealth and power, as they sit for hours at a time waiting for an unsuspecting deer, boar, goat, or similar sized animal to wander near them. They hunt primarily through scent and can track prey 2.5 miles (4 km) away in a good wind. Komodo dragon hatchlings weigh less than 3.5 ounces (100 g) and are about 16 inches in length (40 cm).  Their first year is quite precarious since they can be eaten by a number of predators, including adult Komodos. The young feed on insects, small lizards, snakes or birds – whatever is at hand. By the time they reach five years of age, they can weigh 55 pounds (25 Kg) and stretch 6.5 feet (2 m) long. In the wild, their life span can be more than thirty years.

Color postcard of a Komodo Dragon at the National Zoological Park. The Komodo Dragon is sitting on top of a pile of rocks, and a zookeeper Roy Jennier is standing to its right. The postcard caption reads:  “Komodo Dragon, a young specimen of the largest of all Lizards," by Curt Teich & Co., 1935. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 65, Box 16, Folder: Postcards. Negative # SIA2013-07822  

The National Zoological Park had been home to a Komodo dragon in the 1930s. In the 1960s and 1970s, Zoo director Ted Reed traveled to Indonesia to bring back a pair, “Reni” and “Kelana,” but alas, no babies ever appeared. In the summer of 1988, two Komodo dragons arrived at the National Zoological Park, as gifts from the people of Indonesia to the people of the United States. The two Komodos, “Friendty” and “Sobat” were the only members of their species on exhibit in the Western hemisphere.  The Zoo hoped for some youngsters, but the Komodos were not easy to breed. 

One of the two Komodo Dragons in the National Zoological Park's Reptile House, “Friendty” is six-and-a half feet long and weighs 30.8 lbs., 1988, photograph by Jessie Cohen. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 371, Box 5, Folder: September 1988. Negative # 96-1372.

Clearly the zookeepers needed to learn how to hatch a dragon…….  
Studying how Komodos live in the wild, the keepers decided to expand the dragon exhibit and create a separate nesting area for the female. The exotic couple seemed to like their new digs, and keepers observed courtship activity from December 7 through December 29, 1991.  On January 17, 1992, the female dug a new burrow, and six days later scientists found 26 precious eggs in the nest!

Komodo parents don’t care for their eggs or young – a female may sit on the nest to protect it, but they don’t always.  So the eggs were removed and placed in incubators, sending ten to a lab at George Mason University and putting sixteen in NZP incubators.  The Zoo had developed a cooperative arrangement with nearby George Mason University and split the eggs to two locations for safety’s sake. Months went by without any real action, but after a mere 237 days, on September 13, the first of the tiny dragons hatched at George Mason University!

Komodo dragon hatchling, a female “Kracken,” in September 1992, photograph by Jessie Cohen. National Zoological Park photograph collection. Negative # 215-53JC.tif 

Within four weeks, a total of thirteen Komodo dragons emerged at George Mason and at the Zoo, making this the largest hatching of Komodos on record, in zoos or in the wild.  The National Zoological Park thus became the first place in the Western Hemisphere to breed the rare and endangered Komodo dragon. In the years since this first dragon, four clutches of eggs have hatched at the Zoo, resulting in 55 little dragons that now can be seen at 30 zoos around the world!  Scientists think the long period of incubation is to keep the eggs safe during the searing heat of Indonesian summers. When they hatch in the fall, they are far more likely to survive. 

Komodo Dragon awaiting adoption at the National Zoological Park. Courtesy of National Zoological Park website.

Komodo dragons are still not easy to tame, and would prove a challenge to Hiccup or any other adventurous child today.  Instead you can adopt a Komodo dragon at the National Zoo to get to know and help preserve this endangered species. Come visit Kracken at the National Zoo, and if that's not enough, consider a Komodo dragon tour to Indonesia -- these have also become a popular tourist destination.  

Pamela Henson

Friday, October 31, 2014

Flashback Friday: Dumpsters Part Deux

This October, the Smithsonian Collections Blog is celebrating American Archives Month with a month-long blogathon! We will be posting new content almost every weekday with the theme Discover and Connect. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Things get lost. Sometimes it is something big like your wallet or dog.  Other times it is not being able to find your keys before going to work.  Sometimes it is history, or memory, be it family or institutional.

In this case, it was a sign that once graced the Freer Museum’s fa├žade and was subsequently saved from a trash can.  Recently, we acquired a gift of photographs and other behind-the-scenes material from the early days of the Freer|Sackler Museum.

Combing through the materials, a pleasant surprise came to light.

The Freer Sign can be seen in the lower right of this photograph.

The above photograph finally confirms the exact location of the salvaged Freer sign when it adorned the museum.

We never knew exactly where the sign had been as that institutional knowledge had been lost to time. Sometimes happy accidents happen and things that were once lost are restored.

If you want to know more about the Freer sign, please read Dumpsters are Fun.

Lara Amrod, Archivist
Freer|Sackler Archives

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Panoramic Panic!

This October, the Smithsonian Collections Blog is celebrating American Archives Month with a month-long blogathon! We will be posting new content almost every weekday with the theme Discover and Connect. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.
[Ghostly figure and children.], 1900. Silver gelatin on glass. Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, 1895-1921. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Is anyone feeling a little spooky this week? They are over on SIA’s blog, The Bigger Picture, where the conservator thinks she is seeing things – perhaps a little spirit photography is in order – for it’s the return of that popular horror series… Panoramic Panic, Part III

Nora Lockshin, Conservator
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

American Portrait Miniature Treasures

This October, the Smithsonian Collections Blog is celebrating American Archives Month with a month-long blogathon! We will be posting new content almost every weekday with the theme Discover and Connect. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

American artists began painting portrait miniatures around the mid-eighteenth century, following English and European traditions. The miniatures were closely tied to artistic and social circles, representing keepsakes for bonds of family and friendships, and of admired public figures. Portrait miniatures were often created to celebrate a special event or relationship, such as an engagement, marriage, or memorial. Private gifts of portrait miniatures sometimes were exchanged between loved ones, in which only a person’s eye was depicted. Miniatures were usually palm-size and created to be held or worn as jewelry. These treasured objects combined the fine art of portraiture with the decorative arts in protective cases of glass, fine metals, leather, filigree, and gems. The portrait miniatures were influenced by the earlier traditions of medieval illuminated manuscripts and classically inspired portrait medals of the Renaissance. In the colonial period, artists referred to the art as “pictures in little.”

The earliest English and European miniatures were created with watercolor or gouache painted on vellum and later on ivory or card. There was also a tradition of oil or enamel painted on copper and wood panel. In America, many of the early miniatures were created by European-trained artists beginning in the early eighteenth century. American artists learned from visiting or emigrant European artists and by studying abroad. The popularity of painted portrait miniatures was affected by the competitive market of daguerreotypes and photographs in the mid-nineteenth century. At this time, artists started painting portrait miniatures with greater realistic details and larger formats for public display on tables or as wall hangings. After 1890, miniature painting experienced a revival through the Arts and Crafts movement and the 1899 formation of the American Society of Miniature Painters.

From 2011 to 2012, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery held an exhibition entitled Mementos: Painted and Photographic Miniatures, 1750–1920. To complement this past show, I would like to present additional miniatures from the collection that are fine examples in the historic development of this art form in America.

Andrew Oliver (1706–1774), by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), c. 1758, oil on copper (NPG.78.218)

In about 1758, the young artist John Singleton Copley captured a remarkable likeness of Andrew Oliver, with attention to facial modeling, realistic detail, and side lighting. Copley created this portrait in oil on copper, a technique he used in the early stage of his career, possibly following the miniature technique of John Smibert, a Scottish artist who settled in Boston. Copley also painted a c. 1760 companion portrait of Oliver’s brother Peter, which has a matching original porthole decorative frame. The Oliver family members were so impressed with Copley’s talent that they commissioned seven miniatures from him. Andrew Oliver was a leading merchant and active politician in Boston. He served in the colonial House of Representatives for three terms, on the Massachusetts Council from 1746 until he was appointed secretary of the province in 1756 and lieutenant governor of the colony in 1771. As a representative of the British Crown, he was violently attacked by the colonists as an appointed distributor of the unpopular tax stamps after the Stamp Act of 1765.

Thomas Pinckney (1750–1828), by John Trumbull (1756–1843), 1791, oil on wood panel (NPG.2007.211)

Thomas Pinckney, a former governor of South Carolina, was soon to become minister to England when John Trumbull created this 1791 oil on wood panel miniature. The artist followed the elegant Federal period’s fluid, painterly style in this portrait of Pinckney in uniform, with a cloudy sky in the background in the English manner. He had studied painting under the American artist Benjamin West in London. Trumbull’s 1791 miniatures of Thomas Pinckney and his brother Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were intended as sketches for a planned group history painting of the 1779 siege of Savannah that was never realized. Both brothers had participated in the unsuccessful attempt to recapture Savannah from the British during the American Revolution. Thomas Pinckney’s most notable role was as special envoy to Spain, where he negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795), which expanded America’s commercial interests in the Mississippi River region.

Elizabeth Depeyster Peale (1765–1804), by James Peale (1749–1831), 1795, watercolor on ivory (S/NPG.2009.49)

James Peale created a 1795 watercolor on ivory miniature of Elizabeth Depeyster Peale, the wife of his older brother Charles Willson Peale. Charles, a widower with six children, was impressed by Elizabeth’s character at their meeting in April 1791 during her visit to Philadelphia. She was a daughter of a New York City merchant; she married Peale after a brief courtship. James Peale had studied painting under his brother and specialized in portrait miniatures. James employed delicate, fine linear brushstrokes and soft lighting for this portrait of Elizabeth. He presented her in an engaged, relaxed manner with a slight smile.

Self-Portrait, by James Reid Lambdin (1807–1889), c. 1845, watercolor on ivory (NPG.78.213)

James Reid Lambdin’s c. 1845 watercolor on ivory miniature is a self-portrait in a dramatic style, depicting the young man’s head turned to the side with sensitive modeling and highlights on his face. This miniature recalls the general aura of the portraits of Lord George Gordon Byron, the poetic leader of the Romantic movement in England. Lambdin was an accomplished artist, educator, and leader in American art circles. He studied with the English miniature artist Edward Miles and local artist Thomas Sully in Philadelphia. In 1828 Lambdin founded the Pittsburgh Museum of Natural History and Gallery of Fine Art, following the model of Charles Willson Peale’s museum in Philadelphia. In 1837, Lambdin settled in Philadelphia and served as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1845–64) and taught at the University of Pennsylvania (1861–66). During this period, President James Buchanan appointed him U.S. art commissioner, and Lambdin created portraits of fifteen U.S. presidents and other statesmen.

Varina Howell Davis (1826–1906), by John Wood Dodge (1807–1893), 1849, watercolor on ivory (NPG.80.113)

John Wood Dodge painted a 1849 watercolor on ivory miniature of Varina Howell Davis in Natchez, Mississippi. The artist portrayed the young Varina with refined, directional brushstrokes that follow the structure of her face. She wears a miniature brooch depicting a King Charles spaniel. This portrait is encased in a gold locket with her braided hair preserved as part of the decorative backside. At age eighteen, she married Jefferson Davis, who became the future president of the Confederacy in Richmond during the Civil War. She was a devoted wife and mother of their five children and an accomplished first lady. Dodge was mostly self-taught, following an early apprenticeship with a sign and ornamental painter. He exhibited his miniatures in 1829 at the National Academy of Design in New York City and became an associate of the academy in 1832. Dodge was later commissioned to paint miniatures of Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. He was a talented and prolific artist creating more than one thousand miniatures, as recorded in his account book from 1828 to 1864. A copy of the account book is held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), by George Lethbridge Saunders (1807–1863), 1849, watercolor on ivory (NPG.79.228)

In 1849, English artist George Lethbridge Saunders painted a watercolor on ivory miniature of Jefferson Davis. Saunders employed a colorful and varied artistic style, reserving the more detailed brushstrokes for Davis’s facial features, and surrounding his figure with soft washes for the landscape and cloudy sky in the English manner. Saunders painted this portrait when Davis was a senator representing Mississippi, before he became the president of the Confederate States of America. Saunders was already an established artist when he visited America in the 1840s. He created miniatures of prominent family members in cities along the East Coast, from Boston to Charleston. He met such artists as Thomas Sully and Charles Fraser and exhibited his works from 1840 to 1843 at the Apollo Association in New York City and the Artists’ Fund Society in Philadelphia.

The Silver Goblet (Self-Portrait), by Lucy May Stanton (1875–1931), 1912, watercolor on ivory. (NPG.72.24)

Lucy May Stanton created this 1912 impressionistic watercolor on ivory self-portrait, The Silver Goblet. She depicted herself in the miniature with soft, fluid washes, produced by a new innovative “puddling” technique, in which the artist controlled the flow of washes by tilting the workboard. Stanton looks directly at the viewer in a confident and celebratory manner in this portrait. She studied in America and France with such artists as J. Emile Blanche, Augustus Koopman, Virginia Reynolds, and James Abbott McNeil Whistler. Stanton in turn became an art educator and exhibited in the United States and abroad, receiving many awards for her works. She also promoted woman suffrage and in 1928 co-founded the Georgia Peace Society.

American portrait miniatures evolved from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. The artists adapted English and European styles and techniques, but they transformed their artworks in the process. The American miniatures emphasized simplicity, directness, and “truth in the likeness,” reflective of the new nation and culture. 

In 1966 the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery established the Catalog of American Portraits, a national portrait archives of historically notable subjects and artists from the colonial period to the present. The public may access the online portrait search program from the museum website of more than 100,000 records; more than 7,000 of these are miniature portraits. . Some of the most notable miniature collections are found at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, New York Historical Society, Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven.

Patricia H. Svoboda, Research Coordinator
Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

All images are from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Fortune, Brandon, and Ann Shumard. Mementos: Painted and Photographic Miniatures, 1750–1920. Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, June 17, 2011, through May 13 2012.

Barratt, Carrie Rebora. “American Portrait Miniatures of the Eighteenth Century.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-

Barratt, Carrie Rebora. “American Portrait Miniatures of the Nineteenth Century.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-

Frank, Robin Jaffee. Telling a Larger Story: Collecting Miniatures for a New Century. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, September 18, 2007, through January 13, 2008.

Frank, Robin Jaffee. Private Faces of Public People: 1750-1900. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, August 17, 2005, through June 1, 2007.


Aronson, Julie, and Marjorie E. Wieseman. Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum. Exhibition catalogue. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum, 2006.

Barratt, Carrie Rebora, and Lori Zabar. American Portrait Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.

Bolton-Smith, Robin. Portrait Miniatures in the National Museum of American Art. Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, 1984.

Frank, Robin Jaffee. Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures. Exhibition catalogue. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Johnson, Dale T. American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.

Labels: 2014 Archives Month, Archives, Artists, Arts and Design, History and Culture, Museums