Biltmore Art History

Vanderbilt Portrait

I went to the largest house in the United States at a time when the lights were dimmed and the Christmas decorations adorned each corner. I came here once before, ten years ago, but it was daytime and not around the Christmas season. 

The Biltmore House was built in 1895 by George Vanderbilt for his mother, who was suffering from health problems and needed cleaner mountain air to get better. The estate expands over 10 square miles, with the house alone spanning 175,000 square feet. The chateau-inspired mansion contains 250 rooms and 65 fireplaces and was one of the first buildings in the United States to have electricity. 

After walking through the building’s first floor, I noticed a couple of Claude Monet pieces from the corner of my eye. My boyfriend, who laughed a little at my art-nerd moment, began asking me about what I knew about the painting. Belle-Île, le chenal de Port-Goulphar (1886), (left) was painted along the coast of Breton. Monet painted Strada Romana à Bordighera (1884), (right) along the Italian coast. Monet’s works actually suffered from the blunders of a careless conservator. Some of these issues included the misuse of varnish, using paint undetectable under ultraviolet light, and an overall inconsideration of Claude Monet’s intentions for technique in the piece. Ruth Barach Cox restored the two Monet paintings in Biltmore.

Cox fixed these issues to breathe new life into the works, which is now enjoyed by visitors of Biltmore House. 

That same year Vanderbilt acquired Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Child with an Orange (1881) and Young Algerian Girl (1882). Located in the Breakfast Room on the first floor, the two works look almost miniature compared to the scale of the interior. Ropes hindered my phone’s ability to capture a high-quality image, but its placement in the room acts as a wonderful accent alongside the masses of portraits of the Vanderbilt family and other works from their vast collection. 

Monet works

Overlooking the story-high book stacks and grand fireplace, Giovanni Pellegrini’s "The Chariot of Aurora” rests on the ceiling of the first-floor library. Water leaks in the ceiling nearly thwarted the safety of the piece, the bubbling canvas became separated from water logging. For years, the band-aid solution was to chisel away at it using merely sets of hammers and nails. Vanderbilt brought in a team of restoration experts from England to work on it. The artists filled the library with scaffolding and took three months to fix the work. So if you ever visit the Biltmore house, remember to look up—you never know where another masterpiece can be found. 

While most pictures online display the full works in daylight, their beauty deepens in the glow of the candlelight tours. The dimmed lights and candles cast a warm hue along the canvases, bringing more attention to the craftsmanship and detail. At night, you feel all of the emotion from the work. You forget you’re in the mountains of North Carolina, and instead feels like you’re running through the hallways of a castle. 

The example that sticks out most in my head about this is the portrait of Edith Vanderbilt painted by John Singer Sargent. Pictures taken in daylight make the painting more clear and blend nicely with the darker-finished walls. However, when viewing it at night, the wall disappears from memory. I never thought inside America’s Palace, a painting could make me forget where I was. 

The experience of a candlelight tour of Biltmore house was one to last a lifetime. Whether you’re into art, architecture, or history, there is something to love about each aspect of the largest house in the United States. 

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