AMANDA SODERLUND FOR THE HOYA
AMANDA SODERLUND FOR THE HOYA

Over 80 years ago, William Francis Boland returned to his Germantown, Md., farmhouse with a painting that had been passed down through his family for generations.

The painting was the self-portrait of Boland’s maternal uncle, James Alexander Simpson, a Georgetown-born artist and the university’s first professor of drawing and painting.

In July 2009, it made one final move — to Georgetown to join the university’s art collection.

In December, the university announced that the 1847 self-portrait of Simpson, who was also responsible for the iconic Georgetown landscapes that adorn posters across campus, had been bequeathed to the university in 2009.

After a restoration process, it was recently hung with a new frame in the Special Collections reading room on the fifth floor of Lauinger Library. The university eventually plans to display it in Healy Hall’s Carroll Parlor, the main showroom for the university art collection.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Over an evening at her townhouse in an adult living community in Silver Spring, Md., Ruth RamsdellStout, the 93-year-old granddaughter of Boland, worked through the details of the portrait’s ownership. After poring over a comprehensive family tree, dredging up old family stories with her son and nephew and making multiple phone calls to different cousins and sisters, Stout, the matriarch of the family, sifted out the ownership line of the portrait.

“It was always known as Uncle Simpson’s picture,” Stout said. James Simpson was her great-great-uncle through her maternal grandfather’s line.

According to Stout, the painting came into her branch of the family in Germantown when Boland picked up the portrait from members of the Simpson family, who were living in the Georgetown neighborhood in the early 1900s.

From Germantown, the painting moved to the top of the stairs of Stout’s childhood home inGaithersburg, Md. In one storied family tale, an in-law particularly taken by the painting stepped back to gather a better angle and tumbled all the way to the bottom of the stairs, eventually ending up in the hospital. She made a full recovery.

At one point, the portrait hung over the sofa in the living room of another home, where it appeared in family photos. Uncle Simpson was then placed over the mantle. He moved with families and passed through hands, ultimately ending up in the Riderwood Village community in Silver Spring, the last residence of Stout’s sister, Jane Ramsdell Frank, and her husband, Richard.

But the 2009 deaths of both Jane and Richard Frank left the painting in another period of transition.

“I called Ruth [Stout] and asked her, I said, ‘Who was the person in the picture?’ She said, ‘All I know is that it was Uncle Simpson,'” Justin Frank, Jane and Richard’s son, said. “I had to do something with it. Nobody wanted it.”

From there, Justin’s sister, Marcia Frank, a former archivist, found out that James Simpson had taught at Georgetown. After calling the university, the siblings were eventually led to the university’s art curator, LuLen Walker.

“We were thrilled,” Walker said.  “I didn’t know such a thing existed.”

THE MAN BEHIND THE LANDSCAPES

Not only did no one outside his family appear to know of his self portrait’s existence, but no one at Georgetown had ever even seen an image of James Simpson before.

“I didn’t have a clue what he looked like,” Walker said.

Simpson, who was born in 1805, is known largely in the university community for the five iconic landscape paintings of the campus he completed in the late 1820s and early 1830s. These are the same landscapes that hang in Carroll Parlor and the president’s office and whose prints decorate walls throughout campus and hang in the homes of scores of alumni.

“A portrait is an artwork, but it’s also a historical document,” Walker said.

Simpson made his mark on the regional art scene as well, primarily in portraiture. Currently two of his works are on display and a third is in storage at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

A note in the university archives by Simpson dated Sept. 7, 1831, explained that one of the sunbeam-laced landscapes was painted precisely as the campus appeared at exactly 2 p.m. that day from the Trinity Church steeple (the church’s location was different from where it stands on N Street today), complete with cows grazing in an idyllic hillside pasture.

“The landscapes in Carroll Parlor are always everyone’s favorites, even though we have a van Dyckand a Luca Giordano,” Walker said.

Now the man behind those bright landscapes has his moment in the sun, as well.

“I think he did a really fine job,” Walker, who worked as a curator at the National Portrait Gallery for 10 years before taking up her current position in 1999, said.

“I see it as him proclaiming the peak of his artistic career and artistic success.”

The 1847 portrait did in fact come in the prime of Simpson’s career. He had already completed numerous commissioned portraits by that time and the year before had finished a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of Commodore Stephen Decatur for the naval hero’s widow.

A FACE REFRESHED

Simpson’s self portrait came to Georgetown in need of significant restoration and cleaning. Most notable was the fact that a decades-old L-shaped tear appeared near the middle of the painting, according to Stout.

Ann Creager, the art conservator charged with restoring the portrait, worked to mend it over a six-month period. She had a challenging task in repairing that tear, which had been poorly patched over using a piece of cloth and what she judged to be Elmer’s glue.

After addressing other restoration needs, Creager was able to begin cleaning away over 160 years of dirt, grime, varnish and more dirt. The six-month restoration project was completed in September 2011.

“I knew that painting was going to clean, and I knew it was going to be dramatic,” Creager says. “I knew I was going to make Georgetown happy cleaning it up.”

The university was more than excited.

“When I saw the painting on the easel I was just completely overwhelmed by how beautiful it looked,” Walker said. “It was like a whole new painting.”

The portrait is oil on canvas and features Simpson in full formal wear, standing at an easel with paint palette in hand. He is painting a portrait of an unknown woman and looking directly at the viewer, a confident look on his face, with a sketch book resting in the background.

Dabs of paint on the palette literally rise from the surface of the canvas.

“He really just saved himself for the palette,” Creager says. “It’s just like a palette would be.”

From Germantown to Gaithersburg and Upshur Street to McLean Gardens, from the top of the stairs to over the mantle to above the sofa and now to Lauinger Library, the painting has been guarded by one family after the next.

“This is your great-great grandmother’s brother you’re talking about,” Stout once scolded a son who jokingly suggested taking the portrait for appraisal at the Antiques Roadshow.

It is safe to say that now that Simpson is at Georgetown, he will be moving less often than before, certainly remaining in this family for some time.

“It felt as if [Creager] brought back to life a long-lost relative,” Walker said.

The version of this article that appeared in print on Jan. 27 mistakenly referred to Upshur Street asUpture Street. The article has been updated to reflect this change.

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