Unveiling Miss Townsend . . . Again
by Ellen Berlow (’11)
Published in Cosmos Bulletin, January 2016
The Gilded Age history of the Cosmos Club is linked in perpetuity to Mary Scott Townsend and her only daughter Mathilde Townsend, heiresses to a railroad and coal fortune.
The Townsend Mansion was—and still is—one of the great houses on Massachusetts Avenue. Built in 1901, the Embassy Row house was designed for lavish entertaining enabling Mrs. Mary Townsend (her husband died in a riding accident shortly before the house was completed) to become an important society figure. A society magazine noted that she spent $240,000 a year on food and payroll for her 34 servants and their uniforms. In 1907, 22-year-old Mathilde Townsend posed for John Singer Sargent, the leading portrait painter of the day. The painting was a birthday present from Mathilde to her mother. It was one of Sargent’s last portraits as his later paintings focused on landscapes.
Mathilde was in good company as a portrait subject. Sargent had painted portraits of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John D. Rockfeller and Madame X. The oil-on-canvas painting of Miss Mathilde Townsend is life-sized, capturing her in a blue dress with a swirling pink sash set against a blue sky dotted with clouds. Her hair is upswept. The painting conveys status and high society. The signature of the artist can be seen in the upper left-hand corner.
Miss Townsend was called “a noted international beauty.” Her wedding in 1910 to her first husband, Peter Gerry, Senator from Rhode Island, was the social event of the year and was attended by President Taft and his Cabinet. Her wedding gown was described as a “marvelous creation made in a Paris atelier “at a cost of $15,000. In a society magazine, Mathilde Townsend Gerry is described as “deeply interested in politics having lived most of her life in Washington. She has been actively identified in philanthropic organizations and will be a favorite in congressional circles.” Mathilde divorced the Senator in 1925.
Following her divorce, Mathilde married Sumner Welles who later became Under Secretary of State in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. The couple lived at 2121 Massachusetts Avenue until after World War II. Mr. and Mrs. Welles continued to use the Townsend mansion for social functions, entertaining FDR and other notables. The Club acquired the mansion in 1950 after Mrs. Welles’ death.
The Sargent painting was given by the estate to the National Gallery of Art in 1952. It was on extended loan for use by Blair House in the 1960s and 70s. The painting was later loaned for use in the U.S. ambassadors’ residences in Paris and London.
A reproduction of the Sargent painting was donated to the Cosmos Club in 1992. For many years, it hung outside the Warne Ballroom. Julius “Jay” Kaplan, James Blair, David Alan Brown and Clarice Smith wanted to replace it with a better digital image. Working with the National Gallery of Art Division of Imaging and Visual Arts, they were able to produce an ultra-high resolution photograph.
The new image, in a new gold frame, now hangs over the fireplace in the Newspaper Room adjoining the Library.