Treasure Quest

Columbia’s bounty of hidden art is beginning to see the light of day.

by Thomas Vinciguerra ’85CC, ’86JRN, ’90GSAS Published Fall 2015
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Charles Willson Peale: Portrait of  Alexander Hamilton, c. 1780

Charles Willson Peale, Portrait Miniature of Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), ca. 1780, Watercolor on Ivory. Presented to Columbiana (University Archives) by Edmund Astley Prentis (C00.1673)Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, was, as some Columbia wags say, “the College’s most famous dropout,” since he abandoned his studies at King’s College after two years to fight in the Revolution. This watercolor-on-ivory miniature is thought to date from the year Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, and may have been presented to her as a gift. Less than two inches tall and an inch-and-a-half wide, it is set in a framed silk mat (not seen here) that Elizabeth herself is believed to have embroidered.

The artist, Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), was one of the primary portraitists of the leaders of the Revolution; he painted some sixty likenesses of George Washington alone. It was thus appropriate that he immortalized Hamilton, who rose to become Washington’s secretary and aide-de-camp.






Near Eastern Spoon Handle, 8TH–7TH Century BC

Ancient near eastern spoon handle in the shape of a duck’s head, from Iran, 8th–7th Century BCE, Ivory, Sackler Collections (S0128)

This ivory spoon handle from Iran, carved in the shape of a duck’s head, is part of the Sackler Collections. Simple recurved heads of water birds were sometimes found on spoons and ladles in the courts of Mesopotamia. The duck’s eyes were once inlaid with unknown materials. In 2013, this piece was loaned to Willamette University, in Salem, Oregon, as part of its exhibition “Breath of Heaven, Breath of Earth: Ancient Near Eastern Art from American Collections.” Two other Art Properties items were part of that show: a bronze beaker depicting a lion, and a plaque depicting a hunter and his leonine opponent. (Any reference to Columbia’s mascot was probably coincidental.)

Sending these artifacts on the road was in keeping with the greater goals of Art Properties. “Because we don’t have a museum at Columbia, we use these pieces in a more pedagogical way,” says Ferrari. “We have a unique opportunity to think about using these objects in settings beyond that of a traditional display.”

George Romney: Portrait of David Hartley, MP, 1784

George Romney, Portrait of David Hartley, M.P. (ca. 1731-1813), 1783-84, Oil on canvas. Gift of the Estate of Geraldine R. Dodge (1978.7)

This large painting (58 ¾” x 48 ½”, including frame) of the British member of Parliament who signed and helped draft the Treaty of Paris (depicted on the table) has several Columbia ties. The US signatories to the treaty, which ended the American Revolution, included John Jay 1764KC, the future first chief justice of the United States. The portrait is a bequest of Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, wife of Marcellus Hartley Dodge 1903CC, the eponym of both the campus physical-fitness center and Dodge Hall — as well as a benefactor of Hartley Hall, the University’s oldest dormitory, named for his grandfather, Marcellus Hartley.

David Hartley sat for at least five sessions for this oil by George Romney (1734–1802), whom Ferrari describes as “probably Sir Joshua Reynolds’s chief rival in London for portrait painting.” Ferrari hopes to display the portrait near Reynolds’s painting of Prime Minister George Grenville that hangs in Butler Library. “It would be an interesting companion. I think that the University libraries, which are secure spaces, should feature historical artworks like these. The Romney portrait is magnificent.”

Arry Fenn and M. R. Harder: Columbia University Campus, Morningside Heights, 1903–4

Harry Fenn and M. R. Harder, Columbia University Campus, Morningside Heights, 1903-04, Watercolor over pen and ink on paper. Gift of Isaac Seligman (C00.1605)

A gift of the banker Isaac Seligman 1876CC, a former varsity rower and a member of the Ethical Culture Society, this watercolor and pen-and-ink bird’s-eye rendering of the north end of the early Morningside campus was executed by two artists. The otherwise unknown draftsman M. R. Harder drew the picture in 1903. The following year, the English-born illustrator Harry Fenn, among the most prominent painters of US landscapes in the late nineteenth century, rendered the scene in watercolor. Fenn’s many engravings and illustrations adorned several books and, frequently, Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s.

Through the painting, we glimpse Columbia in the first decade of its move to Upper Manhattan. West 116th Street remains a thoroughfare, having not yet been closed off as College Walk. Behind Low Library can be seen the first story of University Hall, which was never wholly built and which was demolished in favor of Uris. And at the corner of 116th and Amsterdam is what is now Maison Française, the last remaining building of the famed Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, which was relocated to complete the quadrangle that is also formed by Kent, Philosophy, and St. Paul’s Chapel.

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