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The Christening, 1868
W.D. Washington (1833-1870)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
30 1/2 x 25 inches
Status: Placed in a Private Collection



The Christening, 1868


Oil on canvas, 30 ½ x 25 inches

Signed and dated lower right



The Rev. Dr. Morgan Administering the Sacrament of Baptism in Grace Church by William D. Washington is most unusual in being a painting by an American artist that is set inside a church. Its antecedents are to be found in paintings of church interiors by the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century.


The unusual image surely was widely known shortly after it was created, for it appeared as a full-page wood engraving in Harper's Bazaar. Grace Church was the most fashionable of Episcopal parishes in New York City in the 1860s. A Christening there was a society event, and as such deserved to be featured in the chi-chi magazine, which offered the latest in fashion, home furnishings and society news to the cosmopolitan woman.


Grace church was built in the Gothic Revival style to the design of James Renwick between 1843 and 1846. It was the first church by the hot, young architect, who was only twenty-three years old when he won the commission. The edifice was applauded as soon as it was completed. The earliest description of Grace Church in print gives an indication of the glorious light that numerous Gothic windows admitted to the sanctuary:


Now let us enter the building; and here we are standing at once amid pillars and carved work, and have all the colors of the rainbow brought to our vision through more than forty windows of stained glass, each one giving some different hues. . . . On each side of the pulpit are two circular windows; thirty-six others, large and small, are scattered above and below on the two sides.<1>


Washington's painting admirably captures the warmly colored light, the soaring Gothic arches of the south transept, and the Gothic tracery in each window. One of the two circular windows referred to in the above description can just be seen at the far left in the painting. Where the artist took his license is in the design of the window over the south door. Contemporary descriptions of Grace Church attest to that window having a diaper pattern similar to those of the smaller lancet windows to its left. Indeed, there was a figure of the ascending Christ over the high alter, but not over the south door, where Washington chose to place it in his painting.


Dr. Morgan, the officiant in the christening scene, was never the rector of Grace Church; rather he served the parish, quite literally by accident, for the brief period of one year between the Springs of 1866 and 1867. The Rev. Dr. William Ferdinand Morgan (1815-1888) was educated at Union College and the General Theological Seminary in New York. In 1844 he became the rector of Christ Church, Norwich, Connecticut, where he served for thirteen years until he was called to be rector of New York's St. Thomas Church. At the time, St. Thomas stood at the corner of Broadway and Houston Streets. As the city expanded northward, many of St. Thomas’s parishioners moved that way also, and the decision was made to relocate the parish in the 1860s. A lot was secured at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, and construction commenced. Before the building was complete, the parish was compelled to surrender its property at Broadway and Houston. The last service in the old St. Thomas took place on Easter Sunday, 1866. Temporarily left without a place to worship, the congregation accepted the invitation of Grace Church's vestry to worship at Grace. The kind invitation actually solved two problems, for Grace Church was then in need of a priest. Its rector, the Rev. Thomas House Taylor, had been sent to Europe by his physician to recuperate from a carriage accident. Thus, Dr. Morgan served both Grace Church and his own St. Thomas, combined under one roof, for a period of about a year, from April of 1866 to April of 1867.<2> While he was at Grace Church, Dr. Morgan officiated at several infant baptisms.<3>


It seems that the identity of the little baby was unimportant to the editors of Harper's Bazaar, who titled the wood engraving made after Washington's painting simply "Baptism in Grace Church, New York." Nor could the people portrayed (other than the Rev. Dr. Morgan) have been that important to W.D. Washington himself. Referring to the picture, Washington wrote the following letter to author and editor Evert Duyckinck:


No. 35 Union Sq.

Feb. 15. 1868


Dear Sir


I have just completed a picture of the interior of Grace Church (with the Rev'd Dr. Morgan officiating in the service of Infant Baptism) to which I have devoted much time labor and study.


It has been suggested to me that as one of the prominent members of the church you might take an interest in the subject, and I therefore take the liberty of requesting you to call and examine the picture if convenient to you, at my Studio No 35 Union Sq (over Bell Bros) at any hour after 9 am on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of the ensuing week, after which time the picture will be removed.


I shall be very glad to have your opinion of the likeness of Dr Morgan and of the general accuracy of the details of the picture.


With great respect




W.D. Washington<4>


Evert Duyckinck was a "prominent member" not of Grace Church, as one might assume from reading Washington's letter, but of St. Thomas Church. He served on St. Thomas's vestry from 1851 through 1868, in the period that the church moved from Broadway and Houston uptown to Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street.<5> Even more suggestive of the fact that Duyckinck might have been a likely candidate to purchase the painting is the fact that he was on the vestry that had called Dr. Morgan from Connecticut to lead St. Thomas in 1857. It is indeed possible that, working together as vestryman and priest, over the years Duyckinck and Morgan had become very close friends.


In summary, The Rev. Dr. Morgan Administering the Sacrament of Baptism in Grace Church is a very important picture. First, as has been shown, it is exceptionally well documented. We know who painted it, when he painted it, where he painted it, and to whom he offered it after he had painted it. Secondly, the painting itself is important as a document on several levels: a document of New York's social history; of Episcopal ecclesiastical history; of architectural and costume history. Finally, it is a beautifully composed and colored painting, with every detail clearly delineated. Its discovery in 1988 is a major contribution to the known oeuvre of William D. Washington and thereby to the study of the art of the South.


<1> O.L. Holley, Description of the City of New York, and its Vicinity (1847) as quoted in William Rhinelander Stewart, Grace Church and Old New York (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1924), page 164.


<2> For a biography of William F. Morgan see The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. For his involvement with St. Thomas Church and Grace Church, see George E. DeMille, Saint Thomas Church in the City and County of New York, 1823-1954 (Austin, Texas: Church Historical Society, 1958) and Stewart)


<3> Records of Grace Church.


<4> Duyckinck collection, New York Public Library Manuscript Division.


<5> DeMille, page 178.


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