Where can you surround yourself with legendary artwork, sit for a spell in a pristine garden of all-white blooms, learn fascinating facts about Cincinnati history, and walk through beautifully decorated rooms? Join me on a visit to the Taft Museum!
Besides being home to an extraordinary art collection, this National Historic Landmark at 316 Pike Street in Cincinnati is one of the great Palladian-style Federal houses in this part of the country. Built around 1820, the white house with oculus windows, green shutters and a large front portico is also known as the Baum-Longworth-Sinton-Taft House. That’s because it was home to some of Cincinnati’s most important citizens and arts patrons.
Martin Baum, a German immigrant who became a successful entrepreneur, was the first owner of the mansion he named Belmont. Nicholas Longworth, a real estate tycoon, patron of the arts and horticulturist, was its next owner. A conservatory housed Longworth’s extensive plant collection, including a night-blooming cereus and a giant South American water lily called a Victoria regia that bloomed for the first and only time in America. During his first sightseeing tour of Cincinnati in 1857, Abraham Lincoln stopped by Longworth’s gardens and mistook the owner for a gardener on staff there.
Longworth also experimented with viticulture. After decades of unsuccessfully trying to grow over 40 varieties of imported European grape vines, he had much better luck with the native Catawba grape, from which he made a popular dry table wine and an accidental sparkling variety that became especially successful. Besides sending a sample of his Catawba wine to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Longworth entered it in the Great Exhibition of London in 1851. He also perfected techniques for cultivating strawberries, eventually creating his own variety, Longworth’s Prolific. When I worked with Miami University’s Covington Collection, one of my favorite items to share was The Culture of the Grape, and Wine-Making. Written by Robert Buchanan and published in Cincinnati in 1853, its appendix contains Longworth’s directions for the cultivation of the strawberry.
Longworth’s most memorable contribution to the house was commissioning Robert Duncanson, a self-taught African-American artist from Cincinnati, to paint eight large-scale landscape murals and floral overdoor decorations in the entrance foyer in the 1850s. The Romantic Hudson River-style murals with trompe l’oeil frames were conserved between 1994 and 2000.
Another self-made man, David Sinton, owned the house after Longworth. Sinton’s daughter, Anna, and her husband, Charles Taft, lived in the house from 1873 until their deaths in 1929 and 1931. Taft’s half-brother, William Howard Taft, accepted his party’s nomination for president of the United States from the portico of the house in 1903. Hiram Powers’ marble busts of David and Anna Sinton, made when the father and daughter were on a Grand Tour of Europe in 1870, stand by Duncanson’s landscape murals.
The Tafts donated their art collection and their home to the people of Cincinnati. In 1932, the museum opened to the public. Considered one of the finest collections in the world, the Taft Museum houses European decorative arts objects, including a display of watches dating from the 17th through the 19th centuries. It is also home to paintings by noted European artists like Ingres, Rembrandt, Gainesborough, Hals and Turner, as well as French landscape paintings. Some of the museum’s most-loved works by American artists include At the Piano, an oil painting that James Abbott McNeill Whistler made in 1858-1859; John Singer Sargent’s 1887 oil portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson; and Cincinnati artist Frank Duveneck’s 1877 painting, The Cobbler’s Apprentice. Ninety-eight percent of objects at the museum are from the Tafts’ collection.
From 2001 to 2004, the eleven galleries housing the museum’s permanent collection were refurbished in a historically inspired $22.8 million restoration project. Now, the Tafts’ treasures are displayed in a domestic setting that is as magnificent as the art.
The décor of each gallery offers the perfect context for the art on display. Reminiscent of a Renaissance-era Kunstkammer, or art chamber, the Renaissance Gallery includes carpeting featuring strapwork, or interlaced bands, reproduced from an 1842 document reflecting Limoges enamel design. Silk draperies suspended from crescent moons and held back by stars were copied from an early-19th century etching in the museum’s archives.
In the brightly colored Music Room, where the Tafts were married in 1873, the walls are painted a vibrant yellow, the drapes were recreated from 19th century French documents, and peony motifs adorn the carpet.
Faux wood graining has been painted on the molding and doors throughout the house.
Outside, the museum’s garden is divided into four areas: a formal garden of all-white blooming trees and perennials; a woodland area with dogwood trees and curving paths; a terrace for dining under cherry trees; and a large brick-paved area for special events.
Daguerreotypes, a popular early form of photography, are the subject of two special summer exhibitions at the Taft Museum.
After daguerreotypes were introduced by Louis Daguerre in 1839, these portraits enjoyed a 20-year heyday, and daguerreotype studios peppered major cities like Cincinnati. Although daguerreotypes made portraiture affordable to the middle class, the cost depended on the fame of the studio and the type of the portrait; a head-and-shoulders portrait was less expensive than a full-length one of a family.
Local Exposures: Daguerreotypes from Cincinnati Collections, on view through July 21, features 10 Cincinnati-related daguerreotypes from local and regional collections. They include street scenes that are among the earliest views of Cincinnati and a unique hand-colored portrait of a woman and her son.
Cincinnati daguerreotypist Thomas Faris’s portrait of Jenny Lind was described by a Cincinnati newspaper as having captured the “warm and life-like expression of the gifted woman who has set the world in such furor,” an exhibit label stated. Matthew Brady’s half-plate daguerreotype of John James Audubon is also in this exhibition. This is the only known photo of the naturalist who arrived in Cincinnati in 1819 to become the first taxidermist for the Western Museum, now known as the Museum of Natural History and Science at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
Handbills, business cards and ads — including an April 1854 one for James Presley Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West — proclaim the success of this exciting new invention in Cincinnati.
Photographic Wonders: American Daguerreotypes from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, an exhibition featuring over 80 daguerreotypes dating from about 1840 to 1855, is on view through August 25. Images include a circa 1843-1845 likeness of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as of Tom Thumb and his mother. Other daguerreotypes in the exhibition capture postmortem images and scenes of Niagara Falls. Still more picture the occupations possible in the growing American economy of the day. Images of surveyors, silversmiths and butchers are displayed alongside a fabric salesman, a musical instrument repairman, and a tightrope walker in an outfit that actually sparkles.
Delicate, mirror-like silver surfaces safely protected behind glass in airtight, velvet-lined, gilded cases also provide a charming glimpse of how the daguerreotype studio operated. Since it took time to take the picture, sitters needed to stay perfectly still. To do so, they would rest their head against a curved metal bar called a head clamp. Parents also held their child’s head still in order for the image to be captured successfully. Daguerreotype artists also employed tricks to keep children from squirming, like propping them up with cushions or distracting them with a toy.
Looking at a few daguerreotypes from Gold Rush days, I learned how gold-miners eagerly bought images made of themselves, their encampments and their mining operations. I thought about James Turner, who left his wife and daughter behind in Felicity, Ohio to prospect for gold in California in 1850-1851. (Read about the Turners’ letters that I processed at Miami University’s Special Collections library here).
To read more about the Taft Museum, see Taft Museum of Art: An Illustrated Guide, by Lynne Ambrosini, David T. Johnson, Cate O’Hara, and Abby Schwartz; The Taft Museum: Its History and Collections, edited by Edward J. Sullivan and Ruth Krueger Meyer; Taft Museum of Art: A Landscape History, by Elizabeth Hope Cushing; and “Expanded, Rejuvenated Taft Museum Retains Its Glory,” my article in the November 12, 2004 issue of Business First.
For more on Nicholas Longworth, see Nicholas Longworth: Art Patron of Cincinnati, by Abby S. Schwartz. Thomas Pinney’s The Makers of American Wine: A Record of Two Hundred Years includes a chapter on Longworth.
To learn more about daguerreotypes, read The Origins of American Photography: From Daguerreotype to Dry-Plate, 1839-1885, by Keith Davis. If you’re curious about the Victoria regia, check out The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make It Bloom, and the World It Created, by Tatiana Holway.