Reflections of The Gilded Age at Biltmore

The release of Sir Julian Fellowes’ series The Gilded Age on HBO and the 2022 “Gilded Glamour” theme for the Met Gala have brought renewed attention to a fascinating period in American History.

We invite you to learn about it with a brief overview of the era and its connections to our very own Gilded Age estate: Biltmore.

What was the Gilded Age?

The Gilded Age is an era in American history from the 1870s to the turn of the century. It was marked by rapid economic expansion, particularly in industries such as railroads and manufacturing. Families such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt rose to new social prominence during this time, marking their ascendance with some of the grandest homes and most glittering parties the country had ever seen.

Portrait of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt by Jared B. Flagg, c. 1879 (cropped)
Portrait of William Henry Vanderbilt by Jared B. Flagg, c. 1877 (cropped)
Photograph of George Vanderbilt, a scholar, collector, and patron of the arts who came of age during America’s Gilded Age
Vanderbilt family portrait by Seymour Guy titled Going to the Opera, c. 1873

Vanderbilt Lineage: From New York to North Carolina

The first Vanderbilt family member to gain prominence was Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt—an entrepreneur from modest beginnings in Staten Island, New York. Cornelius spent his life building an empire based on shipping and railroad concerns. He and his wife Sophia Johnson had a sizable family with 13 children. 

Their eldest son was William Henry Vanderbilt, who married Maria Louisa Kissam and inherited the business after the Commodore’s death in 1877. William doubled the family fortune before he passed away nine years later.

The youngest child of William and Maria was George Washington Vanderbilt, who wed Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in 1898, three years after the completion of Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina.

HBO’s The Gilded Age showcases the highs and lows of a wide cast of characters ranging from old New York and Newport families to the newly wealthy members of their society–and everyone in between. You’ll no doubt notice many differences and similarities between the British world of Downton Abbey, its American counterpart in The Gilded Age, and our own story here at Biltmore Estate.

Envisioned as a private oasis for family and friends, George Vanderbilt’s magnificent Biltmore House would become known as America’s Largest Home®. In addition to the house, this circa 1910 photo shows a view (L-R) of the Italian Garden, Esplanade, Front Lawn, and Stable Complex designed and landscaped by Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted.
This silver Tiffany & Company tea set was a gift to George Vanderbilt from his mother and it is engraved with his and her initials. She gave him with the set—a gracious symbol of hospitality—to serve guests aboard Swannanoa, his private train car.
The grand Banquet Hall table set as ut would have been for a grand Gilded Age gathering at Biltmore House during the Vanderbilt era
The soaring Pellegrini Ceiling in the Library at Biltmore House. Depicted is “The Chariot of Aurora.”

Bringing Gilded Age Grandeur to Asheville

During this era in American history, wealthy families, such as the Vanderbilts, had built multiple palatial homes in and around New York City. However, when George Vanderbilt was ready to build his grand home, he chose to create a country retreat for his friends and family in Asheville, North Carolina.

Vanderbilt enlisted two distinguished designers of the era to help him bring his vision to life: Richard Morris Hunt and Frederick Law Olmsted. Together they created a distinctly European-style estate, but with an expansive feel and modern technologies that were hallmarks of the American Gilded Age.

Gilded Age fashions of Edith Vanderbilt, recreated by CosProp, London, for Biltmore’s 2019 exhibition, A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age.
Gilded Age fashions of Edith Vanderbilt, recreated by CosProp, London, for Biltmore’s 2019 exhibition, A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age.
Recreation of a House of Worth gown worn by George Vanderbilt’s sister, Florence Vanderbilt Twombly, for Biltmore’s 2019 exhibition, A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age.
Gilded Age fashions of Jay and Adele Burden, recreated by CosProp, London, for Biltmore’s 2019 exhibition, A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age.
Glamorous fashions on the cover of the April 1912 and inside of the February 1913 issue of Les Modes magazines in Biltmore’s collection.
Gilded Age fashions of Edith Vanderbilt, recreated by CosProp, London, for Biltmore’s 2019 exhibition, A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age.
Cornelia and Edith Vanderbilt in Biltmore’s stables, c. 1917

Gilded Age Fashions

Fashionable ladies of the Gilded Age, such as Edith Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, followed magazines like Les Modes for the latest stylings from couture design houses in Paris and London. Thanks to our archives at Biltmore, we know that the Vanderbilts favored designers like Jeanne Paquin, Jacques Doucet, and the House of Worth.

From strolling in the gardens at Biltmore to attending “fancy dress” balls, every ensemble worn by the ladies and gentlemen of the era would have been perfectly tailored and adorned with elegant accessories.

Tomato Gazpacho Recipe

Enjoy your own garden-fresh tomatoes with this lovely cool soup created by Bistro’s Executive Chef. Perfect for lunch with some crusty bread and olive oil, or as an elegant appetizer before dinner.

Wine Pairing Suggestion: Pair this refreshing Spanish soup with an equally refreshing wine, such as our Biltmore Estate Albariño or Sauvignon Blanc.

Enjoy your own garden-fresh tomatoes with this lovely chilled Tomato Gazpacho soup recipe by Biltmore.

Tomato Gazpacho

Total time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:

  • Gazpacho Ingredients
  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh tomatoes
  • 2 red peppers – diced
  • 3/4 cup red onions – diced
  • 3/4 cup cucumber – peeled seeded and diced
  • 1/3 cup celery – diced
  • 1/3 cup fennel – diced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup tomato juice
  • 1 clove garlic – minced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chipotle Crème Fraiche Ingredients
  • 1 cup crème fraiche
  • Juice and zest of 1 lime (reserve zest for garnish)
  • 1 tablespoon canned chipotle peppers – finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

Instructions:

  1. Soup: Bring a medium pot of salted water to boil. With a small knife, remove each tomato core and cut a small X into the bottom of each tomato. Put water and ice in a large bowl; set aside. When the salted water comes to a boil, carefully drop tomatoes into the pot and blanch for 30 seconds. Remove tomatoes from the pot with a slotted spoon and place in the ice water. Allow a few minutes to chill. Once chilled, remove tomatoes from ice water and peel off outer skin. Cut tomatoes in half and remove seeds. Discard skins and seeds. Place tomatoes and all remaining gazpacho ingredients in a blender and process until smooth. For best results, store gazpacho in refrigerator overnight before serving.
  2. Chipotle Crème Fraiche: Place crème fraiche, lime juice, and chipotle peppers in a small mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Serving Suggestion: Place approximately 1 cup of chilled gazpacho in each bowl. Garnish with a dollop of crème fraiche, some of the reserved lime zest, and a few cilantro leaves.

Biltmore: The Birthplace of American Forestry

When George Vanderbilt began planning his grand estate in Asheville, North Carolina, more than a century ago, he envisioned a self-sustaining home and stewardship of the land and its resources for years to come. Though it is hard to imagine now, portions of the lush forest surrounding Biltmore House was once overworked farmland and overcut woodland.

Over forested Asheville
Poor Woodland, c. 1892; © The Biltmore Company

The Birthplace of Modern Forestry Management

Following the recommendation of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Vanderbilt hired trained forester Gifford Pinchot—who later served as first chief of the United States Forest Service and founder of the Society of American Foresters—to develop a forest management plan for his land holdings, which eventually totaled approximately 125,000 acres.

Pinchot’s scientific forestry plan (the management and conservation of forest lands) was the first of its kind in the United States and served as a national model. In turn, George Vanderbilt was the first American landowner to implement scientific forestry on a large scale.

In 1895, the same year as the opening of Biltmore House, German forester Dr. Carl A. Schenck succeeded Pinchot and expanded the forest management plan over the next 14 years, including the development of a comprehensive management plan for Vanderbilt’s vast Pisgah Forest holdings. During his tenure at Biltmore, Dr. Schenck also founded the Biltmore Forest School—the first school of forestry in the United States—graduating more than 300 of the nation’s first professionally-trained foresters.

White Pine Planting Asheville, North Carolina
White Pine Plantings, c. 1929; © The Biltmore Company

America’s First Managed Forest

The contributions of Frederick Law Olmsted, Gifford Pinchot and Dr. Carl Schenck transformed what was once a landscape of overused terrain into America’s first managed forest on such a large scale, improving the health of the land while producing sustainable wood and other resources, establishing the birthplace of American Forestry.

Edith Vanderbilt American Forestry
Edith Vanderbilt (far left) and Cornelia Vanderbilt (second from right) attending Pisgah National Forest dedication to the memory of George Vanderbilt, c. 1920; © The Biltmore Company

In May 1914, Edith Vanderbilt, completed her late husband’s wishes of selling an 86,000-acre tract of Biltmore to be managed by the U.S. government as public lands, creating one of the first national forest east of the Mississippi River: Pisgah National Forest. In an excerpt from a letter declaring her family’s interest in preserving the property, Edith stated:

“Mr. Vanderbilt was the first of the large forest owners in America to adopt the practice of forestry. He has conserved Pisgah Forest from the time he bought it up to his death, a period of nearly twenty five years, under the firm conviction that every forest owner owes it to those who follow him, to hand down his forest property to them unimpaired by wasteful use.”

“I make this contribution towards the public ownership of Pisgah Forest with the earnest hope that in this way I may help to perpetuate my husband’s pioneer work in forest conservation, and to ensure the protection and use and enjoyment of Pisgah Forest as a National Forest, by the American people for all time….”

Biltmore Estate American Forestry Today
Views from Biltmore today.

Biltmore’s Forestry Legacy Continues

Today, Biltmore Estate and its resources continue to be managed by those original guiding principles to ensure future vitality, honoring George Vanderbilt’s legacy of conservation and environmental stewardship.

Nearby, the Cradle of Forestry is a 6,500-acre Historic Site within Pisgah National Forest, set aside to commemorate the beginning of forest conservation in America and the lasting contributions of George Vanderbilt, Frederick Law Olmsted, Gifford Pinchot, and Dr. Carl Schenck.

10 Fast Facts About Biltmore

Get to know George Vanderbilt’s magnificent 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, with this list of Biltmore facts.

Nestled in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, Biltmore House is the largest privately owned home in the United States and was the Gilded Age vision of George Washington Vanderbilt.

Portrait of George Washington Vanderbilt
Photograph of George Vanderbilt, a scholar, collector, and patron of the arts who came of age during America’s Gilded Age

10 Fast Facts About Biltmore Estate

  1. George Vanderbilt was born in 1862 in Staten Island, New York. He was the grandson of famed industrialist Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who established the Vanderbilt family’s immense wealth during the mid-1800s through shipping and railroad monopolies.

  2. After visiting Asheville in 1888 with his mother, George Vanderbilt began the process of building his country home. Construction began in 1889 and Biltmore House was first opened to friends and family on Christmas Eve, 1895.

  3. Biltmore House was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt and is America’s Largest Home® spanning 175,000 square feet, which is more than four acres of floor space. The 250-room French Renaissance chateau includes 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces.

  4. Adjacent to Biltmore House are 75 acres of formal and informal gardens designed by renowned American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted.

  5. George Vanderbilt married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in Paris in 1898. Their only child, Cornelia Vanderbilt, was born in the Louis XV Room of Biltmore House in 1900. George passed away unexpectedly following an appendectomy in 1914, leaving the responsibility of managing and preserving of Biltmore Estate to his widow and young daughter.

  6. Biltmore was a pioneer in sustainable land use practices in 1895 and has long operated its farm and field-to-table program. Biltmore is also credited as the Birthplace of American Forestry. Today, Biltmore continues to honor George Vanderbilt’s legacy of preserving the land and protecting the environment through many ecological, recycling, and alternative energy programs.

  7. While the current acreage of Biltmore Estate is approximately 8,000 acres, the acreage during George Vanderbilt’s lifetime was approximately 125,000 acres and included property later sold to the federal government to create Pisgah National Forest, one of the first national forests east of the Mississippi.

  8. With 8,000 acres of Blue Ridge Mountain estate to discover. today’s guests enjoy Biltmore’s scenic backyard with outdoor activities like biking, carriage rides, hiking, horseback riding, and more. The private estate grounds feature over 22 miles of trails to explore.

  9. George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V. Cecil, began planting grapevines in the early 1970s, paving the way for the establishment of Biltmore’s Winery in 1985. Today, our winery is an integral part of a Biltmore visit and is America’s most visited winery. Biltmore’s award-winning wines are available for purchase at estate shops, on biltmoreshop.com, and in select retailers nationwide.

  10. On exhibit inside Biltmore House is the Vanderbilt family’s original collection, art, furniture, and more. With an emphasis on preservation, it’s no surprise Biltmore prides itself on having an in-house conservation department.
View of Antler Hill Village with The Inn on Biltmore Estate on the hillside
View of Antler Hill Village with The Inn on Biltmore Estate on the hillside

A mission of preservation

Today, Biltmore is still family-owned and operated under George Vanderbilt’s mission of preservation through self-sufficiency – a philosophy embraced before the first stone was ever placed.

Over the years, Biltmore has grown to include Antler Hill Village & Winery, which includes Antler Hill Farm; overnight accommodations, including The Inn on Biltmore Estate–our Forbes Four-Star property, Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate, and our historic Cottages on Biltmore Estate; Equestrian Center; numerous restaurants; event and meeting venues; and a licensed products division.

Ready to learn more?

Since 1895, Biltmore has welcomed guests from all over the world to experience the splendor of George Vanderbilt’s visionary estate.

No matter the season, an 8,000-acre oasis awaits you. From historic gardens and grounds to outdoor adventure, behind-the-scenes tours, new exhibitions and events, distinctive retaurants, shopping, and an award-winning winery, there is something for everyone at Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC.

Learn more about Biltmore by planning your visit.

Springtime Project: Olmsted Basket

Biltmore’s gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as his last great commission. Gentleness, charm, and naturalness are keynotes of Olmsted’s style.

The picturesque and pastoral elements of Olmsted’s gardens can be recalled in our miniature landscapes, which our Floral Team uses throughout Biltmore House and other areas of the estate as a way to bring the beauty of the outdoors inside.

How to Create a Biltmore “Olmsted Basket

1. Gather Your Materials

To create this small garden you must first choose a container, plant materials, and accessories that complement each other and your setting.

  • Container or basket: Your container can be a basket, ceramic bowl, brass dish, or wooden box; anything deep enough to hide multiple pots and give you room to create. If you use an open weave basket, line it first with sphagnum moss so the foil and mechanics won’t show.
  • Assorted plants: The size of the pots are determined by the size of your container, but 4″ pots are most commonly used. It’s best to use plants with similar requirements such as light, water, humidity, and temperature. We recommend using some tall and low plants, some upright and some spreading to add depth. Ensure the pots should have drainage holes to protect from soggy roots.
  • Creative accessories: Use natural materials such as moss, rocks, twigs, gourds, and berries to create interest with different textures. 
  • Additional supplies: floral poly-foil or other watertight liner for your basket, floral foam, and sphagnum moss or other natural materials to use as filler

2. Designing Your Basket

  • Prepare your plants by watering them well and allowing to drain.
  • Next, line your basket carefully with florist’s poly-foil or other material to create a watertight container.
  • Begin arranging plant pots in the basket, using floral foam to stack and wedge them into position.
  • Take care not to overcrowd the plants and allow for a rambling, natural feeling with varying heights.
  • Arrange moss to cover foam or pots that may be showing and add visual interest with varied texture.
  • Add finishing touches with accessories such as rocks, twigs, or berries.

3. Display Your Arrangement

  • Choose the perfect spot inside your home to display your Olmsted-inspired creation.
  • Water with care as required by each plant. Tip: Some plants may need to be removed for watering.

From room accents to tabletop centerpieces, these long-lasting designs are a perfect way to brighten up your space. 

Carrying on a Wedding Tradition: The Lee Family Veil

Please enjoy this archived content. Our Fashionable Romance exhibition was on display from February 2016 through July 2016.

Text panel photos of Jackie Onassis and John F Kennedy wedding and Mary Lee Ryan and William Cecile wedding; both women wore the same veil. On exhibition in Legacy in Antler Hill Village.
Text panel photos of Jackie Onassis and John F Kennedy wedding and Mary Lee Ryan and William Cecile wedding; both women wore the same veil. On exhibition in Legacy in Antler Hill Village.

A Family Heirloom

The story begins in 1903, when Margaret Merritt Lee wore the exquisite rose point lace veil when she married James T. Lee, a prominent New Yorker. Some 50 years later, her granddaughters Jacqueline Lee Bouvier and Mary Lee Ryan continued the tradition at their own weddings.

In 1953, Jacqueline Bouvier married then-Senator John F. Kennedy; her first cousin, Mary Ryan, wore the veil in 1957 when she wed William A.V. Cecil, grandson of George Vanderbilt. The original veil will be on display February 12–July 4, 2016 as part of the Fashionable Romance exhibition at The Biltmore Legacy in Antler Hill Village & Winery.

Wedding gown and veil of Mary Lee Ryan Cecil.
Wedding gown and veil of Mary Lee Ryan Cecil.

The future first lady and fashion icon’s wedding gown had a tremendous impact on bridal fashion. InStyle magazine ranked Jacqueline Bouvier 6th on a list of best-dressed celebrity brides of all time for her “super-romantic ensemble.” Her intricate ivory silk taffeta gown featured a portrait neckline, fitted bodice, and bouffant skirt embellished with bands of 50 yards of flounces. A tiara of lace and orange blossoms anchored the Lee family veil.

Text panel in Legacy at Antler Hill Village with archival photo of Cornelia Vanderbilt's wedding.
Text panel in Legacy at Antler Hill Village with archival photo of Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding.

Edith & Cornelia’s Shared Veil

There’s also another wedding veil with Vanderbilt family connections. Edith Stuyvesant Dresser wore her mother’s Brussels rose point lace veil at her 1898 wedding to George Vanderbilt; the veil was also worn by her three sisters at their ceremonies. In 1924, the same veil was part of Cornelia Vanderbilt’s bridal attire when she wed the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil. You can see a reproduction of Edith and Cornelia’s veil on display in The Biltmore Legacy as part of the Fashionable Romance exhibition.

As for the Lee veil, brides in the extended family continue to keep the tradition by wearing it at their weddings, including Mary Lee Ryan Cecil’s daughter and daughter-in-law.

Recreating Cornelia Vanderbilt’s Wedding Dress

Go behind the scenes with the talented designers of Cosprop London as they recreate Cornelia Vanderbilt’s wedding dress to be displayed for this special exhibition at Biltmore.

From Valet to World Traveler: Wilfred Shackley

The typical duties of a Vanderbilt-era valet included attending to their employer, especially assisting with dressing and preparing for the day, much like a lady’s maid. They would often travel with their employer, arranging for accommodations and transportation and managing luggage.

While we do not have a lot of information about Mr. Vanderbilt’s valets over the years, we do know a bit about one in particular named Wilfred Shackley including:

  • He was employed by George Vanderbilt from around 1900-1906.
  • It is believed that his wife, Madeleine Henry Shackley, was the Mademoiselle Henry that was once Edith Vanderbilt’s lady’s maid.
  • Wilfred Shackley was English and was engaged by Mr. Vanderbilt while abroad in 1899.
  • He spoke German and French fluently, which was highly beneficial given how widely he would travel alongside Mr. Vanderbilt.
Recreation of clothing worn by George Vanderbilt’s valet as it was displayed in
Recreation of clothing worn by George Vanderbilt’s valet as it was displayed in “A Vanderbilt House Party” exhibition in 2019. Over his arm is a driving duster, as if he is assisting George prepare for a drive across his estate.

Fascinating glimpses into the life and times of Mr. Shackley

In researching the domestic staff who worked for the Vanderbilts, our Museum Services team uncovered a 1973 newspaper article in the Hendersonville Times-News about Wilfred George Shackley.

“Few people have been able to cram into their lifetime book of memories as many world trips, as many confrontations with kings and potentates and as much hobnobbing with world celebrities as Wilfred G. Shackley of Flat Rock who celebrated his 98th birthday last week.

“Sleeping in the White House at the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt, meeting Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and King Edward of England and traveling around the world with millionaire George Vanderbilt, original owner of Biltmore House are only a few of the highlights of Shackley’s career.

“Born in June 17, 1875 Shackley attended school in England and came to the United States when he was 15 years old. When he came to this country he worked and attended night school and learned accounting, bookkeeping and typing. When he was 19 years old a cotton broker engaged him to go to Shanghai with him.

“He was there eight months and returned to London wearing the white type of clothing usually worn in China.

“When he checked in at the hotel where he usually stayed the clerk greeted him and said ‘You’re just the man we are looking for.’ He added ‘There’s a millionaire here from America looking for someone to travel around the world and keep his records.’

“Shackley says he was introduced to Vanderbilt and when the millionaire learned he spoke several languages he immediately hired him. He said ‘we leave for Paris day after tomorrow.’ Shackley said he told Vanderbilt it would be impossible because all the clothing he had was light clothing he brought from the Orient. Vanderbilt postponed the start of the journey ten days for Shackley’s convenience.

“The Flat Rock retiree spent a number of years traveling with Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt, keeping records of their travels, purchases and other details. Among the countries visited were Russia, Germany, France, Holland, Italy, China, Japan, the Philippines and Canada.

“In his travels Vanderbilt was seeking art treasures, tapestries, statuary, works in silver and gold and historic treasures.

“Shackley has also played chess with a set of chessmen which Napoleon used while he was imprisoned at St. Helena. Vanderbilt acquired the set and it is a part of the possessions at Biltmore House.”

George Vanderbilt’s friend James McHenry gifted him a chess set made of natural and red-stained ivory that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, former emperor of France. Photo credit: @Kristen.Maag
George Vanderbilt’s friend James McHenry gifted him a chess set made of natural and red-stained ivory that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, former emperor of France. Photo credit: @Kristen.Maag

Life after Biltmore

After leaving service at Biltmore, Shackley went to work for a Wall Street bond company, later selling bonds in Paris. He served in World War II with the War Department then became vice president of Henry Rump and Sons, a wholesale fruit and vegetable business founded by his father-in-law. The Shackleys ran this business until his retirement in 1966 when he turned 90.

He passed away at the age of 101 in Hendersonville, NC.

Credit: Excerpts from “William [sic] Shackley At Age 98 Has Led A Full Life,” July 23, 1973, Hendersonville News-Times.

Restoration Retrospective: Tyrolean Chimney Room

As part of our look back at the extensive renovation project that returned the Louis XV Suite of Biltmore House to its current splendor, let’s take a moment to consider the namesake of the Tyrolean Chimney Room: the wonderful tile chimney and mantel.

Detailed view of the tile over-mantel in the Tyrolean Chimney Room
Detailed view of the tile over-mantel in the Tyrolean Chimney Room

The fireplace over-mantel (its correct name) was constructed from a tile-stove known as a kachelöfen that George Vanderbilt likely purchased in his European travels, possibly in Switzerland. Created in the 18th century, Biltmore’s Tyrolean Chimney is made of tin-glazed earthenware tiles hand-painted with exquisite floral designs.

Prior to restoration in 2009, the over-mantel was the focal point of a room used to store beds and frames.

Tyrolean Chimney Room of Biltmore House prior to restoration
Tyrolean Chimney Room of Biltmore House prior to restoration

The Museum Services staff worked with Prelle, a company in Lyon, France that specializes in silk fabrics, to exactly reproduce a figured velvet for the window draperies.

Museum Services and a Prelle representative are comparing the velvet to the colors in the tiles.
Museum Services and a Prelle representative are comparing the velvet to the colors in the tiles.

While the tile was in relatively good condition for its age, Biltmore’s conservators spent hundreds of hours cleaning and in-painting damaged areas of the over-mantel.

Handpainting flower details on the over-mantel
Handpainting flower details on the over-mantel

The painstaking work required a combination of conservation experience and artistic ability.

Detailed view of the handpainted flowers on the over-mantel
Detailed view of the handpainted flowers on the over-mantel

The results show the vivid colors and delicate florals that inspired the room’s striking design.

Tyrolean Chimney Room of Biltmore House after restoration was completed
Tyrolean Chimney Room of Biltmore House after restoration was completed

Learn more about the one of Biltmore’s largest preservation projects to date: restoring the Louis XV Suite—the grandest guest rooms in Biltmore House.

Rosita: The Lady in Red

Rosita, by Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga (1870–1945), is one of the most eye-catching works in George Vanderbilt’s collection and represents his interest in Spanish art, which gained popularity in the last years of the 19th century.

Lounging on a divan draped with a mantón de manila (a flamenco dancer’s accessory), Rosita is wrapped in a white fringed shawl with a red floral flamenco skirt billowing out. She leans on her elbow and smiles, a huge red flower in her dark hair. Rosita is confident: a model at ease with being an object of beauty. So, how did this captivating woman come to stay permanently at Biltmore?

Spanish artist Ignacio Zuloaga, ca. 1925
Spanish artist Ignacio Zuloaga, ca. 1925

A celebrated artist

In 1913, Zuloaga, known as “The Great Basque,” was living in Paris where his reputation had grown since his first exhibition in 1890. He came from a family of artists and his great-grandfather was a contemporary of Goya, who Zuloaga cited as one of his major influences.

A rising star in the art world by the turn of the century, Zuloaga was known for his portraits, especially those of women with a great deal of personality. He also had a reputation for hosting memorable Parisian parties attended by artistic luminaries of the day, such as the famed conductor and cellist Pablo Casals.

“To draw another connection to Biltmore’s collection, we know that he was respected by John Singer Sargent, who actually wrote the introduction to a 1914 catalog of Zuloaga’s work on display in Boston,” says Meghan Forest, Biltmore’s Associate Curator.

Charles and John Kraushaar in their New York gallery. Photo courtesy of Kruashaar Galleries.
Charles and John Kraushaar in their New York gallery. Photo courtesy of Kruashaar Galleries.

Modern art, circa 1914

In January 1914, an American exhibition of Zuloaga’s paintings was held at the prestigious Kraushaar Galleries at 260 Fifth Avenue in New York. The show was reviewed in the February issue of Art and Decoration, a leading art journal of the time:

“Mr C W Kraushaar, following up on his success of last season, showed for two weeks eight pictures by Ignacio Zuloaga, the greatest realist of the very realistic Spanish school.”

The article goes on to say that “his Rosita, in the pattern of her shawl and of the couch on which she reclines, is masterly in painting.”

According to Meghan, recent research on their correspondence indicates that George Vanderbilt did in fact attend the exhibition. He wrote to Kraushaar in January 1914 offering to purchase the painting and requesting the frame in which it is displayed today inside Biltmore House.

Rosita finds a home at Biltmore

After George Vanderbilt’s death, Edith Vanderbilt paid for the painting and requested that it be sent to a museum rather than to Biltmore. In 1915, Rosita entered the collection of the National Museum (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) on loan. There she stayed until 1924, when Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and her husband, the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, visited to view the painting and requested its return to Biltmore. The painting arrived in December 1924, with Rosita taking her place as one of Biltmore’s most intriguing permanent residents.

While Rosita was not at Biltmore during George Vanderbilt’s lifetime, our records indicate that her first placement was the Second Floor Living Hall—a decision made by Cornelia and John Cecil. She was later displayed in the Billiard Room in the 1970s before taking up residence in the hallway outside of the Louis XV Suite in more recent years.

This animation shows Rosita’s difference in appearance before and after conservation treatment in 2023.

Conserving Rosita

In 2023, Biltmore’s in-house conservator, Nidia Navarro, completed the conservation treatment of Rosita’s ornate frame while the painting itself was sent to Ruth Barach Cox for conservation. The painting conservator worked to remove old, discolored varnish and overpainting that was added during past conservation treatments and restore the vibrant colors and brush strokes to their original splendor. Early photos of the painting and Cox’s inspection revealed that the original work featured body hair in the sitter’s armpit, a common practice around the world in the early 20th century. Cox’s treatment returned the painting to its original appearance. 

Be sure to look for the recently conserved Rosita painting on display in the hallway outside of the Louis XV Suite on your next visit to Biltmore House.

George Vanderbilt and His Automobiles

Although Biltmore House was equipped with superb stables, the Vanderbilts did not rely solely on horses and carriages for transportation. Although horse-drawn carriages, ships, and trains were popular when George Vanderbilt was born in 1862, engineers and inventors were already experimenting with “horseless carriages” or automobiles.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the Vanderbilts and their friends began to experience the convenience and speed of driving. George Vanderbilt was particularly fond of automobiles and collected them over the years.

George (third from left) and Edith Vanderbilt (far left), friends, and chauffeur in Godesberg am Rhein, Germany, 1906.
George (third from left) and Edith Vanderbilt (far left), friends, and chauffeur in Godesberg am Rhein, Germany, 1906.

Road trips

Biltmore archives show that George Vanderbilt became an avid fan of automobiles during a visit to Europe in 1903 when his good friend William (“Willie”) Bradhurst Osgood Field offered George and Edith Vanderbilt the use of his car and driver. Vanderbilt wrote Field:

“I am so in love with this mode of travel that I mean to order an auto like yours when I get back to Paris, with the few improvements that have been made since. It makes travelling a different thing and simply a natural transition instead of an effort.

We have decided to remain over here all winter and hope to do some more automobiling next summer…”

(George Vanderbilt to William B. Osgood Field, William B. Osgood Field Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, New York Public Library, New York, New York.)

In a subsequent letter, Vanderbilt again comments on his affection toward automobiles, saying, “We are still enchanted with auto and indebted to you.” 

North Carolina driver's license for George W. Vanderbilt from 1913.
North Carolina driver’s license for George W. Vanderbilt from 1913.

His first car

We aren’t certain what kind of vehicle Mr. Vanderbilt purchased in Paris during this time, but photographs suggest the vehicle may have been made by Panhard et Levassor–the most popular maker of automobiles in France in the early 1900s.

As planned, the Vanderbilts remained in Europe for several more months. In 1904, George mentions a “delightful” three-week trip along the Spanish coast (notwithstanding a mechanical problem that delayed them for several days), several 2–3 day trips from their initial home base in Paris, a planned move to London allowing shorter road trips to visit cathedrals, and a six-week excursion throughout England, Scotland, and Wales.

While the Vanderbilts would continue to enjoy “automobiling” in Europe during their frequent trips, they would not purchase an auto in America until January 1907. Why the delay? Perhaps it was because most American roads were typically in poor condition compared to European roads.

But by the mid-1890s, Biltmore’s roads were nationally recognized as being of the quality needed throughout the country. In North Carolina, “Buncombe County…had accomplished more road improvements by 1914 than any other county in North Carolina,” and George Vanderbilt was given much of the credit.

George Vanderbilt's 1913 Stevens-Duryea Model C-Six, the only automobile remaining in the Biltmore collection.
George Vanderbilt’s 1913 Stevens-Duryea Model C-Six, the only automobile remaining in the Biltmore collection.

American automobiles

In 1907, George Vanderbilt ordered a Stoddard-Dayton car delivered to his home in Washington, D.C. In 1911, he purchased a 1912 six-cylinder, six-passenger Model Y Stevens-Duryea for $4,000. Within a year, he traded the 1912 Stevens-Duryea for a 1913 Stevens-Duryea Model C-Six, which arrived in May 1913.

Receipt for purchase of Stevens-Duryea car; sold to George Vanderbilt for $3096.90 in May, 1913.
Receipt for purchase of Stevens-Duryea car; sold to George Vanderbilt for $3096.90 in May, 1913.

The Stevens-Duryea C-Six is the only vehicle that George Vanderbilt purchased remaining in the Biltmore collection and is today an extremely rare model, believed to be one of only 10 still in existence. It has been carefully conserved but not restored and is in private storage. Intriguing details of this vehicle include Edith Vanderbilt’s monogram hand-painted on the doors and the old-fashioned kerosene lamps that provided backup for the car’s newfangled electric headlights!

Detail of parts and maintenance for Stevens-Duryea car.
Detail of parts and maintenance for Stevens-Duryea car.

Learn more about the Vanderbilts’ travels at The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad exhibition inside The Biltmore Legacy building in Antler Hill Village, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of George and Edith Vanderbilt and their daughter Cornelia.