Gilbert Stuart’s Founder Portraits Come Alive
We have Gilbert Stuart to thank for the most indelible images of the founding fathers and the colonial elite, and now seven of them look better than they have since the 19th century. Among the restored portraits recently unveiled at the National Gallery of Art—with nine more on the way—are portraits of George Washington, John Adams and Abigail Adams. Conservators cleaned the canvases and removed discolored varnish to make the images sharper and richer, and eliminated “corrections” added after the “father of American portraiture” died. A new coat of varnish was applied after the initial cleaning. To cover areas of missing paint, tiny dabs of filler and matching color were added on top of the varnish so they can be removed, if necessary, in the future. Finally, more varnish was used to protect the new work. The 1795 “Vaughan-Sinclair” portrait of Washington now on display exemplifies the results of the conservation efforts. “Everyone was shocked at the liveliness,” says painting conservator Joanna Dunn. “You can almost see the blood rushing under his skin.”
Clues to Demise of Cahokia Uncovered
Archaeologists working in East St. Louis, Ill., may have unearthed clues about the fate of the meticulously planned American Indian communities that formed Greater Cahokia in the middle of the first millennium. Buildings in different parts of the East St. Louis site, about five miles west of Cahokia itself, burned in the middle of the 12th century. “It could be evidence for a very large fire,” says Joe Galloy, a research coordinator for the University of Illinois’ Prairie Research Institute. “It could have been a raid from others, or civil unrest.” A defensive palisade was built at Cahokia about the same time, indicating a possible threat from the outside, and the area may have been in the midst of a severe drought. Greater Cahokia had begun a slow fade to obscurity.
Baseball Card Cache Saved
So many stories about baseball card collections have tragic endings because of housecleaning moms that it shouldn’t be a surprise that a Defiance, Ohio, family has achieved an incomparable triumph through sheer neglect. Thirty-seven extremely rare cards in very good condition, part of a cache of about 700 found earlier this year in the attic of a house where they had sat boxed up for more than a hundred years, sold at auction recently for $565,332. “You could argue that this is the greatest find in baseball cards of all time,” says Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticator, which grades and authenticates sports memorabilia.
No one knows what company manufactured the E98 cards found in the attic of the house once owned by Carl Hench, who ran a meat market in Defiance, but he probably gave them to customers who bought candy around 1910. The cards in the attic, presumably leftovers, were long forgotten in the overstuffed big house, last occupied by one of Hench’s unmarried daughters, who died last year. Twenty cousins are sharing equally in the money from the auction and the remaining cards, and one of them says the windfall isn’t as important as the way it brought his family together. “This closeness,” says Karl Kissner, “is far more important than ‘I’m getting to put thirty thousand in my pocket.’”
Civil War Cold Cases Reopened
The faces in the eight Civil War photos are powerful, but for some 150 years they have been nameless. So the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., which owns the images, posted them online—moc.org/collectionsarchives/unidentified-photographs—hoping someone might provide an identity. For one haunting photo of a somber little girl (right), the museum only knew that it was found between two dead soldiers, one from the North and one from the South, after the Battle of Port Republic in Virginia in 1862. But almost immediately came a clue—another photo with the same studio props that was branded by a Vermont photographer. “We have more research to do,” says Ann Drury Wellford, a photo archivist at the museum, but there is a good chance this cold case will be closed.
De Soto Artifacts Surface After Hurricanes
No one has really known, with only two exceptions, exactly where Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s 1539 expedition wandered in search of New World treasures. Now, evidence has been found for a third point in the journey, between Ocala and Gainesville in Florida. Artifacts surfaced—literally—in 2005 after hurricanes and storms hit property owned by archaeologist Ashley White’s wife. But White focused at first on evidence of a nearby Catholic mission and only more recently identified artifacts related to De Soto: a coin minted before the expedition, the bone of a pig brought from Europe to feed the explorers, links of chain mail armor that proved ineffective against Indian arrows and fell out of use. “The problem with confirming De Soto’s route is that they didn’t carry much with them, so there wasn’t that much stuff to spill out,” says Charles Hudson, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Georgia and co-author of Hernando de Soto and the Indians of Florida, “but the archaeological evidence from this site is very persuasive.”
Buffalo Bill Takes Second Billing to William F. Cody
A new star has been born at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., and his name is William F. Cody. Through a $3 million renovation, the facility has upgraded its technological approach—and its perspective on the person behind the Old West legend. Where the museum used to bring an action-movie quality to the story of the man celebrated for huntin’ buffalo, fightin’ Indians and ridin’ the Pony Express, now it tempers the exploits with the not-so-tall tale of a man who suffered through a troubled marriage, lost virtually all of his show-biz fortune through bad business decisions and fibbed about some of those same exploits. (Spoiler alert: He probably didn’t ride for the Pony Express.)
“We’re trying to make people realize that Buffalo Bill was a part of what William F. Cody was, but that there was so much more,” says curator John Rumm. The touring Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was phenomenally popular and made Cody a wealthy superstar, even as it conflated the truth and fiction of his life. But it also delivered a roaring good time. “Cody was a tremendous talent at spinning a yarn,” says Louis Warren, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, and author of Buffalo Bill’s America. “Whether it was true or not was secondary. He could have you dumbstruck and helpless with laughter.”
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.