From 1816 to 2016: Some of the “finest paintings” in America on display

April 9, 2016

Research suggests Jan “Velvet” Brueghel’s The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark (1613) was one of the Old Master paintings exhibited at Riversdale in 1816. Photo courtesy Riversdale House Museum.

BY SUSAN HINES — From April 8 until Oct. 23, 2016, Riversdale House Museum will feature a new exhibit entitled Some of the finest paintings ever in America. The house museum is celebrating the 200th anniversary of an 1816 display of Old Master paintings at Riversdale. During that long ago spring, for a week or so, American artists and prominent citizens from up and down the east coast visited the house to see a collection of approximately 60 paintings, including works by Peter Paul Ruebens, Anthony van Dyck, and Jan Brueghel..

The story of how this remarkable collection came to the nascent United States and was stored in the newly built home of Rosalie Stier Calvert and her husband George Calvert is interesting in and of itself. In 1794, Henri Stier, a Flemish aristocrat fleeing French Republican troops, carefully packed this art collection for shipment to America. His family also made the dangerous trip across the Atlantic. Paintings and people landed safely in Philadelphia. Stier settled in Prince George’s County, and began building Riversdale on 800 acres of rich farmland on the Northeast branch of the Anacostia River.

The Stier family was welcomed into the upper echelons of Maryland society where Henri’s daughter,  Rosalie,  met and married Calvert, grandson of Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore. Just a few years after their 1799 marriage, political conditions in Europe improved. Stier and his wife returned to their homeland in 1803. Rosalie and George Calvert remained at Riversdale, overseeing completion of the house and safeguarding the collection of still-crated paintings. Only twelve small paintings hung at Riversdale, the rest remained in storage at the mansion. In 1816, Stier wrote his daughter instructing her to return the collection to Antwerp.

Several American artists had been allowed to view the paintings, including Rembrandt Peale, who painted Henri Stier’s likeness in 1799, and Gilbert Stuart, who created Rosalie’s own portrait in 1804. Urged to exhibit the collection before it left America, Rosalie reluctantly agreed. For brief time in April 1816, guests visited the collection. The impact of the exhibition on the lucky few who managed to get to Riversdale is difficult to imagine. Today, we are constantly bombarded by images. In 1816, even the very wealthy would seldom have experienced such a heady concentration of fine portraits and landscapes.

Historian Susan Pearl has made identifying the paintings once stored at Riversdale a personal and professional quest.  For the past twenty-five years, she has combed letters, diaries, inventories, and sale catalogs, and has consulted with museum curators, to identify and locate these paintings. She has been guided by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Curator of Northern Baroque Painting at the National Gallery of Art.  During a recent talk at the Hyattsville Branch Library, Pearl recalled her surprise and delight at the eminent curator’s willingness to help her, then a Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission historian, expand knowledge about this little known collection and its brief sojourn in Maryland.

“This painting collection is one of several things that make the history of Riversdale unique,” Pearl says.  “The study of this collection has, for me, been the ideal dream research project – working with wonderful and always exciting original sources, and traveling to see in person these glorious masterpieces – and there is always more to discover, so the fascination never ends.”

Pearl and Wheelock are confident that the paintings selected for this exhibit,  Some of the finest paintings ever in America,  were among those displayed in 1816.  The special event at Riversdale draws from Pearl’s research and will reintroduce the Old Masters to visitors through digital technology.

High-quality reproductions of 16 paintings have been purchased from the museums that currently house the works, many of which are acknowledged masterpieces. The exhibit can be viewed during open hours on Fridays and Sundays, April 8 – October 23, 2016, 12:15-3:15 p.m. and by appointment for groups of 10 or more.