Decorative Arts

Investigating Robert Donaldson’s Art Collection at Mid-19th Century Edgewater, Part I

Author: Grant Quertermous, CAHPT Curator & Director of Collections

This two-part series will investigate the collection of paintings and sculpture displayed at Edgewater by its mid-19th century owner, Robert Donaldson (1800-1872).  Part I will examine the origins of Donaldson’s collection, specifically his sources for works of art, including commissions and auction purchases, and period descriptions of his collection at Blithewood and later at Edgewater. Utilizing the list of paintings included on Donaldson’s 1872 estate inventory, Part II will include a detailed discussion of each of the more than twenty paintings found in the house at the time of Donaldson’s death along with several pieces of sculpture.

By the time Robert Donaldson purchased Edgewater in 1852, he was a well-established collector and patron of the arts who had assembled an impressive personal collection of fine art over the preceding thirty years.  Period descriptions of Edgewater’s interior, family reminiscences, and the 1872 inventory all help us to better understand the works of art displayed throughout the house during his family’s fifty years of ownership. While Donaldson died in 1872, his children inherited Edgewater and resided there seasonally until 1902, when the property was sold out of the family. Descriptions of Donaldson’s earlier picture gallery at Blithewood, where he lived from 1840-1852, prior to purchasing Edgewater, further illuminate the subjects and artists represented in his personal collection of paintings, all of which were later displayed in Edgewater’s Octagon Library.

Shortly after his graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1818, Robert Donaldson and two classmates, William M. Green and Hardy Croom, embarked on a five-month tour of the eastern United States, traveling from North Carolina to Boston, Massachusetts via Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and New Haven. The journal kept during that trip shows that even as a young man, Donaldson had an appreciation for fine art, critiquing the work of Rembrandt Peale that he observed in the artist’s Baltimore museum, recording a visit to the Pennsylvania Hospital to view Benjamin West’s Christ Healing in the Temple, and noting how Washington Allston’s The Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts “strikes you upon entering with an awakening interest.”

In one passage written after the visit to the Pennsylvania Academy, he noted that “unprejudiced connoisseurs must admit, that [Benjamin] West[’s] figures are as full of life & c—as can be ‘breathed into canvases by the magic fingers of the limner, –at all events West’s & his pupils (Charles R. Leslie, Washington Allston, & c) and Trumbull and Raphael Peale[‘]s productions, hurl back the groundless insinuation that Americans are defective in original Genius.” In another passage, he described the sublime experience of taking a moonlit journey down the Hudson River, suggesting his familiarity with philosopher Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

In April of 1820, Donaldson traveled to London to claim a sizable bequest left to him by his bachelor uncle, Samuel Donaldson.  While in London, he sat for a portrait by the celebrated artist Charles Robert Leslie and purchased another notable work by the artist. The painting, titled Londoners Gipseying, The Gypsying Party, or The Picnic Party at Epping Forest, was a genre-scene depicting a group of Londoners enjoying a picnic in a clearing of Epping Forest.

Leslie had shown the work to great acclaim in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1820, and it appears as #347 in the exhibition catalog. Donaldson probably first encountered the painting at the exhibition. For the next fifty years, it would be the most notable and often described painting in his collection. In 1829, it was engraved by Asher B. Durand for inclusion in The Atlantic Souvenir, a popular periodical of the era, and Donaldson provided the artist-engraver with a thorough critique of an early state of the engraving.

The painting was also mentioned in Willian Dunlap’s discussion of Donaldson’s collection in The History of the rise and progress of the arts of design in the United States (1834).During his time abroad, Donaldson also went to Paris and Scotland before returning to Fayetteville, North Carolina in February 1821. In addition to the Leslie paintings, he also purchased engravings of George Washington and William Shakespeare, each “in glass, over silver in black frames” and presumably additional paintings. The amount of Dutch artwork in his collection also suggests that he may have taken a foray into the Low Countries during the trip, though that’s purely speculative.  If he kept a detailed journal during his trip abroad as he did for his five-month tour of the eastern United States two years before, it did not survive.

Robert Donaldson used his newly acquired funds from his uncle’s bequest to improve the family’s Fayetteville, North Carolina, house, to travel, and to eventually relocate with his siblings to New York City. In 1826, Donaldson purchased a house at 15 State Street adjacent to Battery Park that was formerly owned by Archibald Gracie. Donaldson also began to establish himself as a patron of the arts, lending a painting from his personal collection, Leslie’s “Londoners Gypsying,” to the American Academy of Fine Arts for their 1829 exhibition.  In 1828, Donaldson married Susan Jane Gaston, daughter of North Carolina Supreme Court Justice and former Congressman, William Gaston. While the couple was living in New York City, Donaldson commissioned architect A.J. Davis to re-design the entrance to his State Street townhouse in 1831. Davis would become Donaldson’s life-long friend and collaborator, eventually designing picture galleries for the display of his client’s art collection at two of his later residences.

The Donaldsons entertained regularly in New York and later at their Hudson Valley estates, including artists, patrons of the arts, and musicians among their guests.  One such dinner party in 1833 was given at their State Street house during a visit from Donaldson’s father-in-law, Judge William Gaston. Attendee Philip Hone described the dinner in his diary and noted others present that evening, including Chancellor Kent, a noted legal scholar and former Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court; William Jay, another well-known jurist and son of Chief Justice John Jay; Congressman Edward Everett, a writer and scholar who later gained a reputation as a noted orator and president of Harvard College; and, finally, artist John Trumbull, who had recently completed commissions for the rotunda of the reconstructed United States Capitol Building and was serving as president of the American Academy of Fine Arts.

Donaldson took advantage of art sales in New York City, including the 1834 auction of the Marquise de Gouvello’s collection held at the Barclay Street gallery of the American Academy of Fine Arts. From that sale Donaldson purchased three works by artists including Anthony Palamedesz, The Elder, and Jan Dirksz Both.  The third work purchased from the sale was a copy of Antonio da Correggio’s La Vierge au Lapin.  Pierre-Armand-Jean-Vincent Hippolyte, Marquis de Gouvello (1782-1870), and his wife, Marie-Therese, a granddaughter of noted collector Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, assembled a significant collection of artworks in their chateau near Vendome, much of which was sold to Boston dealer William J. Davis in 1834. Davis brought the paintings to New York where they were displayed at the Barclay Street gallery of the American Academy of Fine Arts from June 30 to July 15 and then sold at public sale on the evening of July 16, 1834. The (New York) Evening Post announced the forthcoming sale describing the works as “valuable paintings, originals, and excellent copies.” According to the story, the source was “authority of one of our most distinguished artists, himself entirely disinterested in the sale,” a likely reference to Academy president John Trumbull.  The catalog indicates that the Gouvello collection was a mélange of original Old Master works as well as copies. For many collectors, a later copy of an Old Master work was a perfectly acceptable addition to a painting gallery, especially if the original could not be acquired.

In addition to works of art that Donaldson purchased during travels or locally in New York, he commissioned works from artist friends for his painting gallery, including a copy of Raphael’s School of Athens that he commissioned from Samuel F.B. Morse who completed the work while in Rome in 1832. Raphael’s 16th century fresco occupies a wall in the Stanza della Segnatura of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. Writing to Donaldson from Rome, Morse commented on the present state of the 300-year-old fresco in February 1831, noting that “the whole is in such a state of decay that I think a few years more will obliterate it entirely and this great work of Rafaele will only exist in the prints and copies that have been made from it.”

In 1836, Donaldson purchased Blithewood, an estate located 100 miles north of Manhattan in the Hudson River Valley.  His wife Susan wrote to her father, “Mr. D. has bought a beautiful country seat on the river…[his] long indulged wish for the country will be gratified.” Over the next few years, Donaldson worked with Davis and A.J. Downing to improve Blithewood, then a seasonal residence, adding buildings and ornamental features on the landscape.  In 1841, Donaldson moved his family permanently to Blithewood, selling the State Street house. That same year, Donaldson commissioned Davis to design a Picture Gallery at Blithewood to display his growing art collection.  The room was located on the side of the house facing the Hudson and featured a half-octagonal end.

The March 1846 issue of American Agriculturalist included a lengthy article about Blithewood and Donaldson’s improvements to the house and landscape. The house was described as “a low but most commodious structure, embosomed in trees, stuccoed and colored in imitation of freestone, with a deep verandah on three sides.” The room described in greatest detail was Donaldson’s Picture Room, noted as “an apartment on the river side of the house, 16 by 32 feet, of a high pitch, and receiving its strongest light through an ornamented sash in the ceiling.”  A key feature of the room was a plate-glass window surrounded by gilded molding that literally framed a view of the surrounding Hudson River landscape around which Donaldson’s “choice but limited collection” of paintings was hung. The framed window was described in 1846 as “a novelty introduced by Mr. D., which quite took us by surprise. It is an oval plate glass, 3 by 4 ½ feet, inserted in the wall, and surrounded by rich mouldings in imitation of a picture frame. One feels that the natural beauties here revealed surpass even the glowing compositions.”

Donaldson sold Blithewood and subsequently purchased Edgewater from Margaretta Livingston Brown in 1852. Mrs. Brown and her husband, Capt. Rawlins Lowndes Brown, had been given the property as a wedding present from her father, John R. Livingston, in 1824.  Both Mrs. Brown’s father and husband had died within several months of each other in the Fall of 1851, and she was further enticed to sell Edgewater after the Hudson River Railroad used right of eminent domain to construct railroad tracks less than sixty feet from the front door of the house.

Writing to architect A.J. Davis in 1853, Donaldson confessed that he didn’t plan to make another Blithewood of the property and recognized its commercial potential with an adjacent  dock and railroad access. He initially planned to construct a villa on the hills along the eastern side of the Edgewater property that would have provided a commanding view of the Hudson river. However, as he wrote to Davis on January 18, 1854, “You will be surprised (perhaps grieved) to learn that I have given up all purposes of Building a villa upon the Heights & intend to live & die in this Greek Temple! The fact is—I have not the requisite enthusiasm now—for going through the laborious & expensive process.”

In the same letter, he described to Davis, his desire for “a picture room– & library North of the D[rawing] Room.” He further articulated his desire that the room be “elegant & commodious & I suppose an octagonal or circular form will be best.” The space which he described, known today as the Octagon Library, was completed in 1856.

Like his earlier Picture Gallery at Blithewood, the octagonal space featured high ceilings and an oculus skylight in the center of the ceiling, allowing the paintings to be illuminated by natural light. In 1866, a local newspaper reporter from The Red Hook Journal described Edgewater’s Octagon Library, noting “this portion of the building is octagonal in form and the books and gems of art are arranged after the style of the Vatican at Rome, the books occupying from the floor to a height of four or five feet, entirely around the room, whilst the walls are hung with choice paintings and caps of the library shelves are arranged with busts, statuettes, and curiosities of art from Herculaneum &c.” This description suggests that Donaldson’s artwork was hung salon-style, in the space above the bookcases that held his important library of books.

Robert Donaldson died at Edgewater on June 18, 1872. His wife Susan Gaston Donaldson predeceased him, dying in 1866. Two years after her death, Donaldson married Mary Bay Walsh, a local widow whom he and Susan had known for many years, though the marriage was short-lived as Mary died just two years later in 1870. The 1872 inventory taken several months after Robert Donaldson’s death indicates that 17 paintings were displayed in the library along with three small statues and numerous prints.  At least four additional portraits are known to have been displayed elsewhere in the house, but they were purposely omitted from the estate inventory, per a notation, as named bequests in Donaldson’s will. These legacies included Charles Robert Leslie’s portrait of Donaldson painted in London in 1820, a portrait of tobacco importer James Dunlop of London, also by Leslie, an 1832 portrait of Susan Jane Gaston Donaldson by George Cooke, and a 1796 miniature of Judge William Gaston, Donaldson’s father-in-law, by James Peale. A bust of Gaston by sculptor Robert Ball Hughes was also displayed in the house.

Robert Donaldson’s art collection offers a remarkable insight into the personality and tastes of a wealthy mid-19th century collector in the Hudson River Valley. His collection was comprised of classical works, genre scenes, landscapes, and numerous works of Biblical subjects.  The assemblage of paintings included both original works and copies of earlier works like Raphael’s School of Athens that he commissioned Samuel F.B. Morse to copy in 1828. Displayed salon-style in Edgewater’s Octagon Library, the collection made an impression on anyone who entered the space.

Below is a transcription of the “List of Paintings & c” as it appears in Donaldson’s estate inventory taken at Edgewater in early October 1872.  While few details are present in the descriptions, earlier accounts of Donaldson’s collection as well as later inventories taken in 1912 and 1932 at the homes of his daughter, Isabel Donaldson Bronson, and his granddaughter, Paula Bronson Cromwell, provide dimensions, descriptions, and clues about each of the works below and their present locations.

Part II of this series will investigate each of the paintings on the list in greater detail, the artist responsible for the work, its provenance, and if known, its present location.  It will also examine some of the family portraits not found on the list that were known legacies in Donaldson’s will, including those that have returned to the CAHPT collection.


Paintings & c.

Gypseying Party C.R. Leslie
Portrait (cabinet size) ditto
The Love Letter Terberg
Madonna Luini
Landscape J. Both
Figure Gaspe Netscher
Small Landscape —————-
Madonna —————-
School of Athens (with key and plaster cast) Prof. Morse
Small Landscape —————-
Saint’s Head
Copy of Corregio’s Madonna
[Copy of] Guercino’s Abraham and Hagar
Old Portrait