Perusing the special collections of the American Art & Portrait Gallery Library, I came across Elizabeth Bryant Johnston’s 1882 compilation, Original Portraits of Washington, Including Statues, Monuments, and Medals. I found the fact that she was a woman author, coupled with an early publication date, intriguing. As August is American Artist Appreciation Month, I found this book an interesting expression of one local woman’s interest in American art.
As one of the founding members of Washington D.C.’s Columbia Historical Society, Johnston has been described as an author, lecturer, and amateur historian. She was known for her dedication to the Society and channeled her love of the Capital and country into the study of George Washington and Mount Vernon. I chose this book for its compilation of artwork by renowned American artists of the period. This publication was among the first, and remains among the most thorough, of its kind, including the works and biographies of fifty-six artists. In her preface, Johnston writes, “in the desire to make the work exhaustive, not even the most grotesque has been omitted, nor those which could only be commended by the knowledge that they were drawn from life.”
Though having been rebound to facilitate research and ease of use, the book’s original light brown cover has been retained. A gilded print of Washington sits in its center, although the artist is not identified. The book’s title is ornately printed above George Washington, with the author’s name featured prominently underneath. Oversized, measuring 11.5” x 14”, and 257 pages in length, the book’s pages are also gilded with gold leaf.
Johnston expectedly includes the renowned George Washington portraiture artists, granting Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, and Gilbert Stuart extensive biographies and numerous prints of their artwork. However, she also makes an effort to include a number of women artists in her compilation. Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, as the granddaughter of Martha Washington and the step-granddaughter of George Washington, receives the most attention. Johnston describes Custis as “a very accomplished woman—a linguist, a musician, and possessed of rare taste in art.” Custis’ Shadow Portraits are said to accurately portray the silhouettes of both George and Martha Washington.
At its simplest, Original Portraits of Washington is an art catalog. While Johnston had not been described as an art scholar or critic, she brings together artists who employ different media, of varying success, men, women, and even a few Europeans. Her art appreciation stems from her patriotism, and is united by her fascination with George Washington.
Many thanks to the Columbia Historical Society reference staff for their assistance.
Other sources by the Elizabeth Bryant Johnston in the Libraries system:
Johnston, Elizabeth Bryant. Visitors’ Guide to Mount Vernon. 17th ed. Washington, DC: Gibson brothers,
Printers , 1891. (AAPG)
Johnston, Elizabeth Bryant. Visitors’ Guide to Mount Vernon. Washington, DC: Gibson brothers,
Printers , 1876. (NMAH)
Johnston, Elizabeth Bryant. George Washington day by day. New York: Cycle Pub Co., 1895 [c1894].
Other compilations of George Washington art in the Libraries system:
Baker, William Spohn. The Engraved Portraits of Washington, With Notices of the Originals and Brief
Biographical Sketches of the Painters. Philadelphia, Lindsay & Baker, 1880.
Cadou, Carol Borchert. The George Washington Collection: Fine and Decorative Arts at Mount Vernon.
1st ed. Manchester: Hudson Hills Press, 2006.
Eisen, Gustavus. Portraits of Washington. New York: R. Hamilton & Associates, 1932.
Hart, Charles Hart. Catalogue of the Engraved Portraits of Washington. New York: The Grolier Club,