After our last update, we were asked: what is “curatorial research” and how do Montpelier’s researchers go about figuring out whether an object belonged to the Madisons or not. Curatorial research can be very involved, but let’s start with “provenance” and continue from there over the next few posts.
So what exactly is provenance? You may have heard the term if you have visited a museum, watched “Antiques Roadshow” or “History Detectives”, or collect antiques. A good definition for “provenance” is, “a history of who owned an object”. As you can imagine, at Montpelier, we are very interested in objects that were previously owned by James and Dolley Madison; one way to describe these pieces is to say that they had “Madison provenance”.
Figuring out an object’s history often starts with finding out how the current owner acquired it. From there, many times we can work backwards from one owner to the next – and, if we are lucky, we may be able to trace the piece all the way back to James and Dolley Madison. For some objects, we are able to easily determine provenance because others have already documented it or a clear chain of ownership exists. For other pieces there are gaps in the chain of ownership. Our goal then becomes filling in the gaps.
So where do we find provenance information? There are several types of sources we can examine. In many cases, a mention of the object can be found in a previous owner’s will, which may also state who is to inherit it. If it is not mentioned in the will, an inventory of the deceased’s estate may have been taken, and the object may appear in that document. If there was a sale of the contents of the estate, we may be able to determine who purchased the object.
In other cases, there is a strong family tradition that an object belonged to the Madisons. Quite a number of pieces on our radar screen are said to have been acquired at sales that took place at Montpelier or at the sale of Dolley Madison’s estate in Washington D.C. following her death. The object may then pass down from one generation to the next in the family of the new owner. While often there is no direct documentation for this tradition, confirming names and life dates for family members believed to have acquired the object can sometimes prove or disprove a provenance. Auction records, old newspaper accounts, family letters, bills of sale and similar records are also extremely helpful in providing provenance information.
As an example, we have listed the full provenance for a well-known Madison object: the portrait of James Madison by Gilbert Stuart. First, the provenance as narrative: Stuart painted four portraits of Madison but only one was done from life. This was painted in 1804, along with a companion portrait of Dolley. It is now in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, but during Madison’s lifetime it hung in the Drawing Room at Montpelier (M108). When Dolley moved to Washington, she took the portrait with her, and it appears in several inventories which were taken of her Washington house. Following her death, a newspaper account of the sale of her estate notes that the portrait was purchased by Edward Coles, Madison’s former private secretary, a distant cousin of Dolley Madison, and Governor of Illinois from 1822-1826. The portrait descended to Coles’ son, Edward Coles, Jr., then remained in the family until Coles’ granddaughter donated it to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1945.
Written as formal provenance, which you might see in a museum catalog entry, it would look like this:
Portrait of James Madison by Gilbert Stuart: Commissioned by James and Dolley Madison in 1804; Purchased by Edward Coles (1786-1868) at the 1852 sale of the Estate of Dolley Madison in Washington, DC; Descended to Coles’ son, Edward Coles, Jr. (1837-1906); Descended to his daughter, Virginia C. Coles (Mrs. George S.) Robbins; Donated to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1945.
More soon on the work of curatorial research!
1“Sale of Mrs. Madison’s Pictures,” New York Semi-Weekly Express (New York, NY), 3/7/1851, pg. 1