For many years, the enormous double portrait by Benjamin West of William Hamilton and his niece Ann Hamilton Lyle hung in the oval dining room of the Woodlands, Hamilton's great estate in West Philadelphia.

Hamilton was a lawyer, gentleman, and botanist (and no relation to Alexander Hamilton, now of Broadway musical fame). When Hamilton died in 1813, the recently completed portrait remained at the Woodlands, presiding over many soirees, meals, and potent political conversations.

In the early 1880s, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania acquired the painting, which stands nearly eight feet high, and hung it in the society's main reading room, where it remained, looming over researchers for nearly 140 years.

But now the society plans to sell West's portrait, the city's most visible evidence — beyond the Woodlands itself — of its intimate ties to one of the founding families of the nation.

Hamilton's grandfather Andrew is famous for virtually creating the idea of freedom of the press when he successfully defended the printer and journalist John Peter Zenger from libel charges in 1735. Truth is a defense against libel, Hamilton argued. And won.

William Hamilton's uncle James was a founder of the University of Pennsylvania, served as mayor of Philadelphia, and was a lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.

Who was that man in the painting?

William Hamilton focused on his estate, acquiring nearly 600 acres west of the Schuylkill. The Penn campus sits on what used to be Hamilton's land. His Woodlands property today includes the mansion and a 19th-century cemetery and is a National Historic Landmark District.

He was, according to James Mundy, past president of the Woodlands, the center of social life in late-18th-century Philadelphia, entertaining Franklin, Jefferson, Monroe, and other party animals.

Charles T. Cullen, the society's interim president and chief executive, speaks frankly of the reason the society wants to sell such an important portrait with strong local ties.

"We don't collect" art, he said. "We don't accession [art]. It is not part of our scope. This is a very valuable work … and we decided to sell and use the money to support the [society's archival and library] collection."

As an archive and library, he noted, the society does not have the capacity or the money to care for artworks.

The society transferred virtually its entire collection of 10,000 artworks and artifacts to what is now known as the Philadelphia History Museum, the former Atwater Kent Museum, in 2002.

The Woodlands mansion in West Philadelphia, built by William Hamilton and rebuilt in the late 1780s.
Photo by Ryan Collerd.
The Woodlands mansion in West Philadelphia, built by William Hamilton and rebuilt in the late 1780s.

Consternation at the estate

At the Woodlands, which Hamilton built as a classical mansion and then rebuilt in a neoclassical style in the late 1780s, there is consternation over the imminent sale, although Woodlands officials acknowledge they do not have the resources to buy the painting.

"We would like to facilitate it staying in Philadelphia in some way," said Mundy.

Mundy said organizing an effort to retain the portrait would require time and partners. They have not been formally contacted by the society, he said.

Jessica Baumert, Woodlands executive director, said that, at the least, "by eliminating the portrait, you're making it hard to tell [Hamilton's] story."

More broadly, she said, "there's a trend in institutions of selling things that are important to Philadelphia" — La Salle University's decision to sell 46 important works from its museum, for instance — and justifying it by saying the items up for sale do not further the institutional mission of education and research.

"But this is a real threat to things like art," Baumert said. "You're saying these things can't be used for education and research."

Sotheby's auction house is handling the sale privately. Cullen declined to disclose the asking price, beyond saying there is a range.

According to two sources not authorized to speak on the matter, the society offered the portrait to the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year for $850,000.

Cullen flatly denied that any price was floated for the painting. The museum simply expressed no interest, he said.

Is there a buyer in the house?

The portrait is not in optimal condition, according to a private conservator Sotheby's hired.

"The painting has been over-cleaned in the past, creating thinness throughout the paint layer," the Sotheby's report states. "This is very noticeable in the woman's dress and in both figures. The surface is unevenly varnished."

Moreover, the painting has been retouched extensively. There are small retouches in the heads and many more retouches throughout the composition, some of which are quite large, according to the report. The two lower corners have received a significant amount of restoration. Restoration can also be seen near the waistlines of both figures and in the male figure's legs, especially the right leg in the shadow, the report says.

Mundy and Baumert hope Sotheby's cannot find a buyer willing to pay a premium for such a large work in not particularly fine condition.

Cullen said that the asking price was based on appraisals, although he added that the market for Benjamin West paintings is very limited.

"Nothing would make us happier than to have it stay in Philadelphia," Cullen said, adding that if the Woodlands could raise the money, "we'd love to sell it to them."

That said, he emphasized that "if we want the most value, we'll sell it to the highest bidder."

And if it doesn't sell?

"If it comes back to us, we'd certainly be still trying to liquidate that asset, but if it doesn't sell, it will come back."