Sunday, July 29, 2012

Henry Ary's Portrait of George Washington

Anyone who has ever set foot in the Council Room at City Hall, either to attend a meeting or just to buy blue trash bags, cannot help but notice the portrait of George Washington, inspired by Gilbert Stuart's 1796 Lansdowne portrait of Washington, which hangs behind the dais. The painting in City Hall is the work of Henry Ary, who moved to Hudson around 1844 and lived and worked here until his death in 1859, at the age of 52.

I always imagined that Ary had been commissioned by the City of Hudson to create this portrait. Ary made his living as an artist in Hudson. He taught drawing and painting to fourth year students at Reverend Hague's Hudson Female Academy at 400 State Street. Both Sanford Gifford and John Bunyan Bristol are believed to have learned from Ary and been influenced by him. Before Thomas Cole encouraged him to paint landscapes, Ary had been a portrait painter in Albany. It would seem logical that the City of Hudson would reach out to Ary when they decided they wanted a portrait of the nation's first president to grace the Common Council Room of the first city incorporated after the birth of the new nation. But a little news item from the Columbia Republican for August 1, 1843, called that imagined scenario into question:
WASHINGTON'S PORTRAIT--Why will not the Common Council purchase Ary's portrait of Washington to decorate the Council Room? He will sell it cheap.
My curiosity piqued, I sought the help of Tracy Delaney, our very capable and helpful city clerk, who made available to me the Common Council minutes from the 1840s and a file of research about the portrait done by city historian Pat Fenoff in 1998 and 1999, when the City invested $16,866 in its restoration. (The first step in that process, according to the reports from the restorers, was to remove "surface dirt grime and a heavy nicotine smoke layer.") Guided by Fenoff's research, I learned that interest in having a portrait of Washington painted for the Council Room started early in 1841. The following resolution is recorded in the minutes for January 4, 1841:
Resolved That Messrs. Rockwell, Mitchell & Waterman be a committee to inquire and report upon the offer made to furnish the council with a painting of Washington and others.
It appears that Ary, who was then living in Catskill, may have approached the Common Council with the idea of painting a portrait. The minutes from the next meeting of the Council, on February 5, 1841, report the committee's findings:
Alderman Rockwell of the committee appointed to inquire and report in relation to procuring a painting of Washington to be placed in the Council Room, Reported that however desirable it might be the funds of the city would not [permit?] any expenditure for that object--the committee were unanimous in the opinion.
Sometime between February 1841 and August 1843 Ary apparently decided to paint a portrait of Washington on spec, with the hope of selling it to Hudson or perhaps to any municipality that might be interested. A search of the Common Council minutes for several months before and after August 1843 discovered no mention of the painting or of Ary and no clue about what had inspired the comment in the Columbia Republican.

The discussion of a portrait for the Council Room is taken up again in the fall of 1845. The Council minutes for October 1845 record this resolution:
Resolved That a select Committee be appointed by the Mayor, to confer with H. Ary--with a view of ascertaining upon what terms his Painting and Portrait of Washington could be obtained to be placed in the Common Council Room.
The minutes note that "appointed on such committee" were "Asst. Ald Whitbeck [and] Ald Mitchell and Gifford." (Alderman Gifford was Elihu Gifford, Sanford Gifford's father.) On December 29, 1845, the Council passed a resolution to purchase the painting:
Resolved, unanimously that the fees of the Commissioners of Highways, amounting to Fifty Dollars be paid to H. Ary, Esq., in part payment for his beautiful Painting of Washington, placed in the Common Council Room. And the Chamberlain is hereby directed to pay the same to said Ary on order.
The members of the Common Council who voted unanimously to purchase the painting were aldermen E[lihu] Gifford, Matthew Mitchell, Stephen Waterman, Hiram Macy, and assistant aldermen V. Whitbeck, J. Newkirk, J. W. Smith, and H. Waterman.

At the time the Council acquired the painting, there was no City Hall. The Common Council met in a room in the building at Warren and Fourth streets now occupied, for the time being, by the Register-Star. At that time, the building was owned by John J. Davis, "who fitted up within it a hall intended for public uses." It was there that the Common Council met and there that Ary's portrait of George Washington was first displayed.

In 1855, when Hudson's first City Hall (now the Hudson Opera House) was completed, the portrait was installed there and remained there until 1962, when City Hall moved upstreet to a former bank building at 520 Warren.

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