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The painting, "Washington Resigning His Commission," which first appeared in the State House in 1859, was rehung Friday after a $100,000 restoration.
The painting, "Washington Resigning His Commission," which first appeared in the State House in 1859, was rehung Friday after a $100,000 restoration. (Erin Cox/Baltimore Sun)

Back in 1859, when one of Maryland's most prized paintings was first hung in the State House, workers took out a fireplace in the Senate chambers to install the mammoth piece.

There it hung for decades, its bulky, gilded frame at eye level with state senators who puffed on cigars and hawked into spittoons while conducting the business of the Free State.

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More than a century passed without a proper restoration.

"The sheer size of it made it hard, which was good for the painting," said Elaine Rice Bachmann, a historian for the State House. "It was spared from well-meaning but disastrous restorations."

On Friday, after more than a year's work, a dozen specialized movers rehung "Washington Resigning His Commission" above the grand marble staircase in the Annapolis State House.

"We had to take out a window," said Samuel L. Cook, who oversees the State House grounds for the Department of General Services. "It's the biggest hole we have without taking out walls."

The 14-foot-wide oil painting depicts one of Maryland's strongest claims to the formative years of the United States: the day George Washington stood in the State House and resigned his commission in the Continental Army, forever elevating the country's civilian government above its military commanders.

For years, "It was really how people understood and visualized Washington's resignation," Bachmann said.

It's hulking wooden frame alone weighs 800 pounds. During the restoration, archivists discovered beneath layers of grime the signature of the artisan who carved the frame.

"Oh my, it looks different," said Joy Walker, who has worked in the State House for more than two decades. "It doesn't look dusty. It looks like it's coming alive. It was filthy, filthy, filthy."

The restoration is part of an $8 million project to restore the old Senate chambers in the State House, including 40 pieces of artwork associated with the room. The restoration of Washington's resignation cost about $100,000, Bachmann said.

Annapolis was serving as the nation's capital in 1783 when, two days before Christmas, Washington the Revolutionary War hero told the Continental Congress he would retire to private life. (The state acquired Washington's handwritten copy of that speech in 2006.)

The Maryland General Assembly commissioned a portrait of the event in 1856. After a national search, the commission went to American artist Edwin White, well known in his time for large-scale historical portraits, said Michelle Fitzgerald, a researcher with the Maryland State Archives.

White began work on the painting in New York City and finished it in his studio in Paris, Fitzgerald said.

He skirted a few historical details by painting women, including Martha Washington, into the scene, adding tables and depicting all the men without hats — something that would have violated ceremonial protocol of the day, Bachmann said.

On Friday, hand-cranked lifts screeched as they elevated the painting back into its home above the staircase from the first to the second floor, where it has hung since the newer part of the State House opened in 1906. The public can see it on display every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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State officials closed part of the building to the public Friday to reinstall the newly buffed and restored painting. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a history buff, emerged from his office just in time to see the final screws being put in place.

"The frame really makes the picture pop, you know?" he said.

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