This Valentine's, Celebrate Love in All Its Forms
Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. And while you’re thinking of what to do on this day of love, you might think to take a moment and learn about the romantic history at our collection of Historic Sites. After all, there’s more than enough love to go around.
And these romantic objects in our historic sites' collections promise to add a little something special to your Valentine’s Day.
Life is filled with exciting moments. But a proposal—and accompanying engagement ring—often ranks high on the list of moments.
When 43-year-old bachelor (and future President) James Madison was introduced to the 26-year-old widow Dolley Todd in 1794, they couldn’t have known that that meeting would lead to a 42-year marriage.
“In this era, it was common for widows to remarry for security and protection,” said Montpelier senior research historian Hilarie Hicks. “However, James and Dolley's story was more than a marriage of convenience. The two were rarely apart, but when they were, their letters show a longing to be reunited."
After Dolley accepted James’ marriage proposal, he wrote her a letter, saying, “I can not express, but hope you will conceive the joy it gave me.”
And their marriage was seemingly a very pleasant one. Dolley’s letters to James, one sent while she was in Philedelphia for medical treatment in 1794 and another while James was away at the University of Virginia for a meeting in 1826, reveal the depth of their connection. “The four days passed without you my beloved, seem so many weeks!” Dolley wrote in that 1826 letter.
Dolley's engagement ring was also quite precious to her. She is said to have died with it on her hand.
Before there were endless “Will you be my Valentine” cards and neon-colored candies, there were the tasteful and varied 19th-century calling cards of the Victorian era.
These cards had a broader function than the valentines of today. “Calling cards were very much accessories and symbols of one’s status, as well as useful items, much like today’s business cards,” said Villa Finale's manager of collections & interpretation, Sylvia Gonzalez. “Folks often kept calling card-filled decorative bowls or trays in their parlors or main halls to ‘show off’ who they knew or how large their social circle was.”
Villa Finale boasts a collection of over 50 of the 2-inch-long cards on display in its Green Sitting Room. Walter Mathis, the last owner of the Texan Historic Site, was fascinated by the Victorian era and maintained the card collection.
“He loved all the formality and romanticism of the Victorian era. He considered himself a ‘product of Victorian upbringing’ and was well versed on how a gentleman should behave,” said Gonzalez. “Just by looking around Villa Finale, he also enjoyed all the embellishments of the time.”
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One of the biggest stresses of Valentine’s Day is choosing the perfect gift. Today, that often looks like chocolates or flowers.
In the case of sculptor Daniel Chester French, he chose something a bit more personal and unusual: a pair of snuggling owls. Made in 1870 as a Valentine’s present, French named the sculpture “St. Valentine’s.” According to French, the goal was to make “a pair of owls seated side by side, love-making more in the style of humans than owls!”
A model of the owl sculpture was later sold to a Boston firm, becoming French’s first sale and eventually his most successful piece in Parian, a biscuit porcelain designed to imitate marble. The sellers renamed the piece “Matchmaking” and sold plaster versions of it for $50.
French liked the owl design so much that he reused the idea for his 25th wedding anniversary party at Chesterwood. As French later recounted to his brother, William Merchant Richardson French, he had his studio assistant cast “a lot of the love-making owls ... and gave each of the lady guests one.”
The snuggling owls are on display in Chesterwood's Barn Gallery.
But maybe you already have a valentine and don’t need flashy cards or eclectic gifts. That was the case for architect Phillip Johnson and his lifelong partner, art curator David Whitney.
Johnson and Whitney’s love is apparent across the 49-acre Glass House estate but especially in the art they left behind. The couple had a particular affection for the works of artist Frank Stella. Stella’s painting Averroes (1960) was the very first piece of artwork that Whitney suggested to Johnson for their personal collection.
“Averroes could be understood as a tangible embodiment of Johnson’s and Whitney’s life together," said former Glass House curator Irene Shum Allen. "And the Stella artworks … [are] the physical manifestations of different periods within their relationship and shared history.”
In recognition of their patronage and relationship, Frank Stella created a special model for the couple. Given a month before Johnson’s death in January 2005, Ship with Walkway was part of Stella’s Moby Dick series. Notably, a large-print copy of Moby Dick is the only work of fiction in the Glass House library.
Both Averroes and Ship with a Walkway can be seen on a tour of the Glass House estate. In fact, Averroes greets visitors to the Painting Gallery as it is positioned directly opposite the entrance.
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