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Wartime Beginnings

Shown from the lap up, a woman with pale skin wearing a white satin dress and tall white bonnet sits sewing with her body facing our left in this vertical portrait painting. She turns her head to look directly at us from under slightly raised eyebrows with heavy-lidded, almond-shaped, dark brown eyes. She has a long, sharp nose and her high cheekbones are lightly flushed. Her thin lips are pressed together with the corners pulled back, and her mouth is framed by vertical wrinkles along her chin. A bonnet of sheer  white fabric is secured around her head by a white silk ribbon tied into a four-loop bow above her forehead. The bonnet is pleated to create ruffles that frame her face. The woman pinches threaded sewing needle between her right thumb and index finger, farther from us, while holding the thread taunt with her outstretched pinky. Light catches a pearl-like object near her thumb, but on closer inspection it might be a thimble she wears on her middle finger. The remainder of the thread is secured by her left index finger and thumb, which also holds the fabric she stitches. A gold ring glistens on the third finger of her left hand. The crisp fabric of her dress looks white in the light and the shadows are a silvery, pale gray. The long sleeves fit closely along her arms and more fabric, perhaps of the skirt, billows up beside her over the arm of the chair. A piece of gauzy white cloth drapes over the woman's neck and over her shoulders, and may be tied around her torso. She sits in a dusky rose-pink upholstered chair lined with brass nail heads. The background behind her is taupe near her torso and it darkens to nearly black in the upper corners.

Gilbert Stuart, Catherine Brass Yates (Mrs. Richard Yates), 1793/1794, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940.1.4

The relevance and urgency of that claim—and the need to preserve and protect the nation’s art treasures—became clearer when the United States entered World War II in December 1941, just nine short months after the Gallery had opened. Many of the museum’s early activities were dictated by the war. Nightly blackouts began on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, and in 1942 the Gallery’s most important paintings and sculptures were evacuated to art connoisseur and collector George Vanderbilt’s palatial Biltmore estate near Asheville, North Carolina, for safekeeping. Among these works were three American paintings: Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington and Catherine Brass Yates (fig. 3), (all Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940) and Edward Savage’s The Washington Family.

Meanwhile, the Central Gallery on the Ground Floor hosted many temporary exhibitions “centered on the Nation’s war effort,” according to the early Gallery guides. These included American Artists’ Record of War and Defense (1942), War Posters (1943), and Wartime Paintings of the Army Air Forces (1944). Moreover, the Gallery served as a refuge and inspiration for members of the armed forces stationed in Washington, DC. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, in 1943 the Gallery became the headquarters for the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. In the context of such a devastating global conflagration, the heroic efforts of the commission to redress the cultural losses of the war illuminated just how profound the Gallery’s own central mission was to preserve and exhibit the artistic legacy of Europe and America, not only for Americans but also for the world at large.


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