If you have a house or a room to decorate in an authentic American manner; if you have an antique chair that needs reupholstering or a reproduction which you wish to place on the right kind of carpet; or if you have a more general interest in knowing how great-grandfather lived, go to your art museum and examine the canvases by old American painters. You will see all kinds of people--rich and middle-class, purse- proud and simple, ordinary citizens and heroes like Robert E. Lee--in the rooms they inhabited generations ago. Around them are their possessions, arranged just as they were in real life. Perhaps you will have the excitement of discovering the table in your living room duplicated in the vanished parlor of some long-dead worthy.
Sometimes you may be surprised by what you see in the pictures. Our ancestors did not have that hatred for color which has been imposed on their memory by the dimming effect of time and the vandalism of ignorant restorers. They were more likely to gay up a table with nice bright paint than to scrape it down to the bare wood. Nor was a consistent attempt made to be true to what historians would later consider the style of the period. In those years, as today, a piece of furniture was likely to be used as long as it was serviceable. Thus the decor of a room was less often a shiny novelty than a slice of family history; grandmother's chair, father's highboy, and the sideboard the present owner bought after he had made a killing selling beaded necklaces to the Indians.
No other source gives us so intimate and accurate a view of the American past as do the paintings our ancestors commissioned themselves and criticized carefully before they hung them on their walls. We do not have the formal arrangement of unusual and therefore valuable antiques which is the stock-in-trade of American wings in museums. The figures are not wax fugitives from department store windows smirking eternally over the clothes wished on them by some curator of textiles. These are real rooms inhabited by real men and women. Everything is spruced up, perhaps, as for a party, yet the elegance is elegance our ancestors them-