George Washington's Eye: Landscape, Architecture, and Design at Mount Vernon

By Kern, Susan | The Journal of Southern History, May 2014 | Go to article overview

George Washington's Eye: Landscape, Architecture, and Design at Mount Vernon


Kern, Susan, The Journal of Southern History


George Washington's Eye: Landscape, Architecture, and Design at Mount Vernon. By Joseph Manca. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Pp. [xii], 297. $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4214-0432-5.)

George Washington's Eye: Landscape, Architecture, and Design at Mount Vernon is a beautifully produced book (with 32 color plates and 149 black-and-white photographs, documents, and drawings) that has a confounding thesis. Joseph Manca analyzes Mount Vernon as an aesthetic endeavor that reflected George Washington's moral principles. Manca considers Washington as an architect, designer, art collector, and critic and generally argues that Washington paid attention to the aesthetic and design details of his surroundings. This emphasis seems an odd choice in the age of social history since Manca overlooks Washington's moral stance on matters of race and slavery that have everything to do with his plantation landscape and house.

Manca, a professor in the department of art history at Rice University, disregards not only a generation of work on plantations by historians and architectural historians but also work by art historians who consider social context and visual culture in addition to connoisseurship. Despite Manca's mining of George Washington's papers and the collections of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, this book is highly unsatisfying.

George Washington s Eye neglects major scholarship on early American housing that explores the Virginia house in response to the complex needs of a highly stratified plantation society. The center passage, the dining room, and the relationship of entertaining and private spaces within a house and other domestic buildings were predicated on the structure of Virginia society, both the culture of its elite and the people they subjugated.

Manca misses the important role of Washington in the early diversification of his plantation--transitioning from tobacco monoculture to a mixed grain and trade economy--a shift that required new buildings to house activities like spinning and threshing. Mount Vernon has been the model for archaeologists and historians looking at how changes in agricultural practices affected slave life, work routines, and the buildings that served production. …

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