George Washington liked to shape his own circumstances. Over the years he carefully crafted both his inner self and his public persona, as well as many aspects of his aesthetic world. Washington’s life formed a unity, and his morality formed part of the backdrop to his designs at Mount Vernon. His house, gardens, and art collection—and his own writings about them—were a major part of the public face of his virtue.
Washington usually acted with conscious moral purpose. “Moral” is meant here in the broadest possible sense, including such ethical matters as maintaining a public reputation, using one’s time wisely, fulfilling one’s duties to society, and living without luxuries. In the eighteenth century, the conception of morality also included the achievement of individual perfection, such as living a rational, tranquil, and harmonious life. Washington was obsessed, perhaps even more keenly than his contemporaries, with matters of honor, appearance, dignity, and duty to society. As a schoolboy, Washington copied down the maxim that “every action one takes should be in consideration of all of those present,” and indeed his lifelong actions as architect, collector, and landscape gardener were done in consideration of the public’s valuation of his moral worth.
—from Chapter 1: George Washington: Morality and the Crafting of Self
On the banks of the Potomac River, Mount Vernon stands, with its iconic portico boasting breathtaking views and with a landscape to rival the great gardens of Europe, as a monument to George Washington’s artistic and creative efforts. More than one million people visit Mount Vernon each year—drawn to the stature and beauty of Washington’s family estate.
Art historian Joseph Manca systematically examines Mount Vernon—its stylistic, moral, and historical dimensions—offering a complete picture of this national treasure and the man behind its enduring design. Manca brings to light a Washington deeply influenced by his wide travels in colonial America, with a broader architectural knowledge than previously suspected, and with a philosophy that informed his aesthetic sensibility.
Washington believed that design choices and personal character mesh to form an ethic of virtue and fulfillment and that art is inextricably linked with moral and social concerns. Manca examines how these ideas shaped the material culture of Mount Vernon.
Based on careful study of Washington’s personal diaries and correspondence and on the lively accounts of visitors to his estate, this richly illustrated book introduces a George Washington unfamiliar to many readers—an avid art collector, amateur architect, and leading landscape designer of his time.