Restoring the Past: The Smoking & Gun Rooms

For upper echelons during the Gilded Age, few things were more important than networking and maintaining social standing. Smoking and Gun Rooms were essential for many affluent families. At Biltmore, these two rooms have been used in various ways over the last century, yet always centered around hospitality.

In honor of National Preservation Month in May, we invite you to learn about the intricate layers of our preservation efforts to restore the Smoking and Gun Rooms of Biltmore House.

Hallway between Smoking and Gun Room
An archival photo of the hallway from the 1940s displays embossed wallpaper resembling leather, dating back to 1911.

A home well-loved

Biltmore has been called home to many generations of Vanderbilts and Cecils throughout the years. And, just as we do in our own homes, we update, refresh, and alternate the use of space, the Smoking and Gun Rooms on the first floor of Biltmore House were no different.

During George Vanderbilt’s time, gentlemen primarily utilized these rooms to socialize, relax, and gear up for outdoor activities including hunting and fishing. After George’s death, Edith and Cornelia downsized, and used these rooms as office and living quarters, which they remained through the Cecils’ stay. Always evolving and reflecting the tastes of the time and lifestyles of their inhabitants.

Handwritten letter by George Vanderbilt from February 13, 1896. Letter says
A handwritten letter by George Vanderbilt in 1896 gives us a glimpse at the historic use of these rooms.

History writes itself

Through a combination of research, our own archival documents and photos, and those from repositories around the world, we can peel back the layers of time to bring Biltmore back to its roots.

Among the treasures uncovered in our archives are a series of letters that offer a glimpse into the past. One letter, dated to the 1890s, finds George requesting retrieval of a box stored in a desk in the Smoking Room—these little nuggets of information provide us with invaluable clues to the room’s furnishings and use.

“Dear Charles, With the enclosed key please open the desk in the smoking room. In the middle drawer is a box addressed to me at Biltmore about 14×7 inches + 2 inches deep… On the top of the desk are a lot of letters and some invitations. Please mail me these.” – George Vanderbilt on February 13, 1896

Herbert Noble in Biltmore Winter Garden c. 1930
Herbert Noble in Biltmore’s Winter Garden c. 1930

The Butler’s Log

Central to our research efforts is the Butler’s Log, meticulously maintained by Herbert Noble during the 1930s. This detailed account of the changes made within Biltmore House offers a treasure trove of information, from descriptions of room updates to insights into the removal and replacement of furnishings and décor that had been worn out, water damaged, or whatever the case may be. Often what he is moving out is the pieces of information that are most helpful.

Herbert recorded, “Leaks at some time had ruined the original paper which was dark green. As the blue draperies were so very faded and worn, I had new ones made for it of dark red damask…”

Edith standing in the Smoking Room
The wallpaper seen in this photo of Mrs. Vanderbilt matches a sample of wallpaper in storage, which assisted us in restoring the Smoking Room to its original state.

We took that information alongside a picture of Edith which shows a striped wallpaper on the wall behind her and found the same green striped wallpaper in our storage. This sample has since been sent off to be reproduced by Atelier D’Offard in Tours, France, who specializes in hand-blocked wallpapers as produced in the 18th and 19th centuries.. The same company who produced wallpapers for the Louis XV Suite.

Another entry states,”Mr. Cecil uses this room for a writing room.  He had the woodwork cleaned & oiled last year…Mr. Cecil had the backs of the cabinets painted yellow which shows up the birds so much more besides improving the appearance of the room.  The dark blue & red rug is from the Van Dyke room…  As this room had no draperies I hung a pair of velvet draperies in here.

A glimpse inside the Gun Room of Biltmore House as it undergoes preservation.

Digging deeper for information

While we had archival clues for the Smoking Room, the Gun Room required the team to start entirely from scratch. According to Lori Garst, Biltmore’s Curator of Collections, we had no archival drawings to use when planning the restoration of the Gun Room. Our research last summer focused on the function of late 19th  and early 20th-century gun rooms.  Based on the finishes in our gun room, we knew that the dirty work of cleaning the guns was done elsewhere.  Rather, Biltmore’s gun room, like others, was more of a gathering place where the men went to pick up their equipment for the afternoon’s shoot or fishing outing. 

Pardon our Preservation: Restoration of these rooms will be visible to guests through completion.

A mission of preservation

For Lori and the team, every preservation project is a chance to uncover and revive history. “Restoration projects at Biltmore uncover our past. Stories related to the spaces are revealed, and the original design details are uncovered. In the Smoking and Gun Room, we have both. When complete, the rooms will be completely transformed.”

We welcome you to see our ongoing preservation efforts of this National Historic Landmark for yourself during your next Biltmore visit.

Preserving Stable Courtyard, Brick by Brick

For over a century, the brick pavers of the Stable Courtyard adjacent to Biltmore House have supported everything from horse and carriage traffic to more than a million guests each year. Unsurprisingly, sections of the courtyard had become worn and were ready for a large-scale preservation project.

Continue reading to learn about what it takes to restore the courtyard’s appearance to Biltmore House architect Richard Morris Hunt’s original design intent.

Photograph of the Stable Complex construction from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1894
Photograph of the Stable Complex construction from George Vanderbilt’s collection, ca. 1894

A brief overview of the Stable Complex

Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, one of America’s most prominent architects during the late 19th century, the Stable Complex was an essential component of the comprehensive plan for Biltmore Estate.

This state-of-the-art complex includes many spaces, such as horse stables, a carriage house, living quarters for estate employees, livery storage, saddlery, and, of course, a wide, brick-paved courtyard.

Tip: Learn more about Biltmore’s construction story at our Building Biltmore House exhibition, on display daily inside the Halloween Room. Access is included with Biltmore House admission and Annual Passholder memberships.

An aerial view of Stable Courtyard before preservation work began in 2023 reveals inlaid patterns in the brick pavers.
Brent Merrell, Biltmore’s Director of Engineering Services and Preservation Committee member, provides an up-close look at the historic brick and mortar.
Historic bricks in good condition that are removed from Stable Courtyard will be preserved as part of Biltmore’s collection.
Over 10,000 brick replicas were created to match the color, size, texture, and sheen of the originals.
Custom mortar was also developed by experts in partnership with Biltmore’s preservation committee.
A side-by-side view of the historic bricks (left) and the newly restored replicas (right).

Stable Courtyard preservation by the numbers:

  • The Stable Complex is around 12,000 square feet, while the brick Courtyard is around 9,000 square feet.
  • During Mr. Vanderbilt’s era, there would have been as many as 25 riding and driving horses and 20 carriages inside the complex.
  • The process of recreating replicas of our historic brick took more than three years.
  • Preservation work is estimated to have taken a total of six and a half months to complete, with part of the work happening in 2023 and the remaining in early 2024.
  • 1,700 square feet of brick pavers were assessed, some of which were original bricks and others which had been replaced over the years.
  • 10,800 reproduction bricks and 2,016 gallons of mortar were ordered for this project. Both the bricks and the mortar were designed to age consistently with the original brick, and the differences now are calculated to produce the same appearance over time.
  • Biltmore Estate has held the National Historic Landmark designation since May 1963. As such, our preservation work follows the guidance set by the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.
The clock in Stable Courtyard has been restored to Gilded-Age-glory.
The clock in Stable Courtyard has been restored to Gilded-Age-glory.

Keeping time in the Courtyard

In addition to the resetting of brick pavers, the Stable Courtyard Clock has also been recently preserved! The face of the clock was treated by our in-house Conservation team, which included restoring the gilded wood hands.

Biltmore’s Associate Curator, Meghan Forest, says “Historically, this clock would have been connected to all of the clocks in the service areas of Biltmore House, ensuring that staff had a firm and consistent idea of what time it was.”

Want to learn even more about this preservation project at Biltmore? Watch this video with Brent Merrell.

Thank you for your help in preserving Biltmore

We welcome you to see our ongoing preservation efforts of this National Historic Landmark for yourself during your next Biltmore visit.

Biltmore Estate® Cardinal’s Crest® Wine Takes Flight!

Biltmore Estate® Cardinal’s Crest wine takes flight with a breathtaking new label that will help you see this long-time guest favorite in a whole new light.

Cardinal’s Crest tasting notes

Glasses and a bottle of Biltmore Estate® Cardinal's Crest red wine
Biltmore Estate® Cardinal’s Crest Winemaker’s Blend is an easy-drinking red wine that pairs well with a wide variety of your favorite flavors.

Blackberry notes and smooth tannins make Cardinal’s Crest a soft, easy-drinking wine perfect for solo sipping and good-time gatherings.

Historic inspiration

“For many years, Cardinal’s Crest has enjoyed a loyal following with those who appreciate how approachable it is,” said Meghan Forest, Associate Curator. “What you may not realize, however, is that this wine’s story is rooted in one of George Vanderbilt’s most interesting possessions: a pair of 17th-century hangings embroidered with gold and silver threads.”

Print of Cardinal Richelieu
This likeness of Cardinal Richelieu, engraved by Robert Nanteuil, is one of many prints that George Vanderbilt collected and displayed in Biltmore House.

According to Meghan, the original hangings once belonged to Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), a French clergyman, nobleman, and statesman who served as Chief Minister for King Louis XIII.

“These ornate textiles are a fascinating part of Biltmore’s extensive collection, and they definitely illustrate George Vanderbilt’s deep interests in history, politics, religion, and the arts,” said Meghan.

One of two ornate embroidered 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu hangings that George Vanderbilt collected. Both original textiles are now in storage due to their age and fragility.
Detail of the 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu hangings in the Biltmore collection. The star symbol is a reference to the Order of the Holy Spirit, an order of chivalry awarded to leading French nobles to recognize their loyalty to the Crown. (You’ll see the same symbol in the engraved print of Richelieu by Robert Nanteuil previously referenced in the blog.)
An unidentified guest in Biltmore House standing in front of the Cardinal Richelieu hangings, ca. 1898.
The Richelieu family coat of arms includes a central silver ground with three crimson chevrons like you see in the hangings. The motto ‘Semper Idem’ translates to ‘Always the Same’ in Latin, which is also a good motto for a delicious wine like Cardinal’s Crest that is consistent from vintage to vintage!

“The hangings are the most beautiful dark red silk velvet with embroidery and threadwork in real gold and silver. They hung in Biltmore House in the past, and though we wish we could still display these exceptional pieces for our guests, textiles tend to become very fragile as they age, so we have now placed them in storage to conserve them and prevent further deterioration,” Meghan said.

Modern inspiration

“The name Cardinal’s Crest was selected to honor these extraordinary hangings in Biltmore’s collection, and to echo the rich, velvety red depths of the wine itself–it was a perfect pairing of past and present!” said Meghan.

It is difficult, however, to tell such a complex story on the back label of a wine bottle, and over time, Cardinal’s Crest became associated with a different type of cardinal: North Carolina’s state bird.

“It makes sense because male cardinals are a vivid red with a distinctive crest of feathers on their head, and because Biltmore is so deeply rooted in North Carolina history,” Meghan said.

Creating the new Cardinal’s Crest label

Biltmore Estate® Cardinal's Crest red wine bottle and glasses

In 2022, Biltmore’s wine team decided it was time to share the story of Cardinal’s Crest more broadly, so they turned to Lisa Vogel, Art Director, for a new label that would illustrate the appeal of this easy-drinking red blend.

“For years, Cardinal’s Crest has flown under the radar of many wine enthusiasts, but Biltmore’s winemakers have always handcrafted it with the same high-quality grapes that you’d expect from any of our Biltmore Estate® Limited Release wines,” said Lisa.

Flight of fancy

Wine label for Cardinal's Crest Winemaker's Blend
The new Cardinal’s Crest label features production techniques such as gold foil and holographic foil stamps that create iridescence and a sense of movement. If you look closely at the cardinal, you’ll see that it’s composed of elements from the original hangings, while the gold lines in the background reference the golden embroidery threads.

Lisa took inspiration from the historic Richelieu hangings and the modern take on North Carolina’s state bird, weaving both halves of the story together in a stunning label that immediately makes you want to know more about the wine in the bottle.

“I took some of the most compelling details from the original hangings and created a dynamic cardinal in flight,” Lisa said. “It was a bit of ‘upcycling,’ if you will–using existing elements from a piece in Biltmore’s collection to create a fresh look for a new generation of wine enthusiasts.”

Using a variety of production techniques to further enhance the finished design, Lisa including a gold hot foil stamp printed on the label to mimic the original gold threads.

“There is also an iridescence to the labels when you see them in person; this is due to the holographic foil stamp used in addition to the gold foil stamp. Along with a textural emboss and spot varnish, all of the production finishes together create a label that is as luxe as the original textile!” said Lisa.

Even though the original hangings must remain in storage, Lisa hopes her design for the Cardinal’s Crest label will give you a glimpse of their ornate beauty.

Savor Cardinal’s Crest now

Biltmore Estate Cardinal's Crest wine with a pitcher of sangria
Biltmore Estate® Cardinal’s Crest wine is perfect for sipping, savoring, and sangria!

This delightful red wine—inspired by a flight of fancy with the Cardinal Richelieu hangings in Biltmore’s collection—pairs our winemaker’s passion for her craft with the estate’s cardinal mission of preservation.

That’s why it’s designated a Winemaker’s Blend, to reflect Sharon Fenchak’s careful attention to sourcing and selecting outstanding fruit to handcraft our velvety smooth Cardinal’s Crest.

Purchase Biltmore Estate Cardinal’s Crest in estate shops or online, and for refreshing summer sipping, try our easy recipe for Cardinal’s Crest Red Sangria!

Biltmore’s Bass Pond: Re-Creating the Missing Island

Did you know Biltmore’s Bass Pond originally had two islands within it? One of the islands (or “islets,” as landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted referred to them) mysteriously disappeared over the years. However, our horticulture team recently worked to re-create this feature as part of our mission to preserve the estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

About the Bass Pond’s Design

Biltmore’s Bass Pond—referred to as “the lake” in some archival documents—was part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape plan for the estate, created more than 125 years ago. Designed to provide still water for the Vanderbilts and their family and friends to go boating, the six-acre body of water was created by damming a nearby creek and enlarging its millpond.

Archival bass pond image
Archival image of the Bass Pond with both original islands visible, ca. 1895.

Olmsted wrote about the Bass Pond islands in a January 29, 1891 letter to George Vanderbilt:

“There were four reasons for designing the islets near the north margin of the lake: first, the effect of them would be to enlarge the apparent extent of the water… and there would at least be more effect of intricacy and mystery; second, [because of] the steepness of the ground almost everywhere at our proposed water-line on the main shore… the islands, being low and flat, are intended to serve was a disguise and relief to this circumstance; third, the islands will save cost of construction; fourth, they are needed as breeding places for shy waterside birds, many of which will only make their nests in the seclusion of thickets apparently inaccessible.”

Team re-creating the new island
Our team sourced the clay-based soil for the new island from another estate location.

Re-Creating the Missing Island

During the early months of 2022, our horticulture team began the preliminary work to install the missing island. First, they drained the Bass Pond so that the water level was below the height of the new island. Then, the pond was dredged and our crew disposed of the old sediment and material. Finally, our team brought in clay-based soil from another location on the estate to re-create the island.

Transporting plants in the bass pond
Transporting the selection of plants to the newly established island was a project in and of itself.

Landscaping of the island took place in May 2022. Six members of our horticulture team transported iris, Cliftonia, and Juncus to the island via several rowboat trips. The selection of plant material was in line with Olmsted’s original intention for the islands’ purpose. Juncus, for example, is a water-loving grass that offers habitat for wildlife, in particular the shy waterside birds referenced by Olmsted in his letter to George Vanderbilt.

New Bass Pond island almost complete
Our team intentionally selected plants that would remain true to Olmsted’s original vision.

On your next trip to the estate, we invite you to linger along the shores of the Bass Pond. Consider strolling there via the Azalea Garden Path after your Biltmore House visit. Marvel at its historic boat house and waterfall. And of course, watch the newly re-created island for those shy waterside birds—just as Olmsted intended.

Re-Creating Biltmore’s Missing Bass Pond Island

Restoring Our Roof: North Tower Ridge Cap Project

In 2015, several leaks in Biltmore House made it clear the time had come for restoring our roof.

We brought in Huber & Associates, a firm of historical and restoration roofing experts, to remove the original North Tower Ridge Cap from America’s Largest Home®.

Restoring the roof of Biltmore House
A worker removes a section of the original ridge cap under the watchful eye of a grotesque carving

After carefully removing each section and taking it back to their Florida workshop, the team used the original pieces as models to build an all-new ridge cap for restoring our roof.

This seven-month project shows our commitment to our continuing mission of preserving Biltmore. Here’s how the work unfolded:

April 2015

The crew arrived at Biltmore and spent several days disassembling the North Tower Ridge Cap and preparing the pieces for travel.

A worker removes a section of the original copper roofing
A member of Huber & Associates carefully removes an original section of the North Tower Ridge Cap

May 2015

Three different weights of copper were discovered — 18, 20, and 24 ounce — as well as a leaf from one of the vertical panels that still had some of the original gold leaf intact!

Restoring the roof panels
An original roof panel with George Vanderbilt’s monogram still shows traces of gold leaf

About 900 individual pieces arrived in Florida, where they were inventoried and analyzed.

June 2015

Scaffolding in place to access North Tower Ridge Cap restoration on roof of Biltmore House
Scaffolding in place to access North Tower Ridge Cap restoration on roof of Biltmore House

Meanwhile, work continued at Biltmore to repair any underlying leaks in the roof, and a temporary ridge cap was created to prevent further damage while the replacement was being built in Florida. 

August 2015

Restoring elements of the roof of Biltmore House
Exact reproductions of decorative copper components from the North Tower Ridge Cap

The crew at Huber & Associates created separate casts for stamping, pouring, and forming new molds to replicate the original pieces.

October 2015

Restoring our roof at Biltmore House
Huber & Associates returned to install the replicated pieces of the ridge cap

Huber & Associates finished their painstaking replication of the North Tower Ridge Cap and brought all the pieces (original and new) back to Biltmore for installation. The photo above shows one of the new copper sections being installed next to an original portion of the ridge cap with its distinctive green patina.

November 2015

Installation of the new North Tower Ridge Cap began and the project was completed in late November. The original pieces were placed in storage.

The new copper ridge cap is a reddish-brown color that looks much like it did when Biltmore House was completed in 1895. It is being allowed to acquire a natural patina over time rather than trying to match it by modern methods.

Restoring our roof with new copper sections
A worker installs a new section of the North Tower Ridge Cap

Biltmore was honored to receive the Griffin Award for Restoration—given annually by The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County for projects that accurately depict the form, features, and character of a property as it appeared at a particular period of time—for this preservation initiative.

We are grateful to our amazing employees and to Huber & Associates for all their hard work. 

Biltmore Goes to Great Heights for Preservation

Biltmore goes to great heights for preservation, because our mission is to preserve the estate for the enjoyment of future generations.

This means that every aspect of Biltmore must be cleaned, inspected, repaired, and restored on a regular basis. And that’s no easy feat! Biltmore spans an impressive 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. Every sweep of the broom and delicate touch of dusting breathes life into the past, ensuring that the tales woven into the very fabric of Biltmore endure the test of time.

Great heights for preservation

Cleaning the Grand Staircase and Chandelier at Biltmore
Cleaning the Grand Staircase and its 4-story chandelier takes preservation to new heights!

It also means that our guests sometimes get amazing glimpses of the work that goes on behind the scenes in America’s Largest Home®.

Winter Garden woodwork

In September 2016, for example, Connie Dey, Housekeeping Supervisor, and members of her team utilized a 40-foot scaffold to clean the oak woodwork that surrounds and supports the glass ceiling in the Winter Garden.

Couple views Winter Garden in Biltmore House
The beautiful Winter Garden woodwork undergoes a deep cleaning every three years for preservation purposes.

Part of our ongoing preservation efforts, treating the wood that supports the glass takes place about every three years. Sun damage is evident closest to the top of the ceiling, which dates back to the late 1890s.

This area receives full sun for several hours on bright days. Making sure the wood stays moisturized is key to keeping it protected–sort of like applying sunscreen every three years.

Connie and her team vacuumed and wiped dirt away to ready the surfaces for an application of a special wood polish containing beeswax, carnauba wax, and orange oil. The entire project took about a month.

High standards of cleaning

Going to great heights for preservation includes cleaning the Banquet Hall
Staff members go to great heights to clean the Banquet Hall.

While some projects like the Winter Garden ceiling are done every few years, Biltmore House itself gets a thorough deep cleaning each winter after Christmas at Biltmore ends.

“Winter is usually our quietest season,” said Connie Dey, “so it’s the perfect time to clean things without getting in the way. And visitors often enjoy watching the process–my team gets lots of questions from guests about how to clean their own homes!”

Not all preservation projects unfold on a grand scale. Often, it’s the meticulous attention to small details that play the largest part in maintaining Biltmore House. Behind closed doors, our caretakers dedicate themselves daily to seemingly normal tasks like dusting the books on the bookshelves. The walls of the Library house about half of George Vanderbilt’s personal collection of 20,000 volumes. About one-third of the volumes were antiquarian purchases, the oldest of which is an Italian work published in 1561. Without proper care, the knowledge of our past would be lost to time.

Our mission of preservation

The statue of Diana overlooking Biltmore House is a hidden gem in the landscape.
Statue of Diana overlooking Biltmore House

Our mission to preserve Biltmore as a privately-owned, profitable, working estate emphasizes preservation first. Learn more about our efforts to preserve, restore, and conserve this National Historic Landmark with the help of our in-house conservation department.

Featured image: Connie Dey stretches over the Winter Garden to reach every inch of wood with her dust mop to prepare the wood for its moisturizing treatment 

An outdoor sculpture comes clean

An outdoor sculpture comes clean, with help from the expert conservators at Biltmore.

“From the iconic marble lions in front of Biltmore House to terra cotta figures, bronzes, and more, the estate features 37 pieces of outdoor sculpture and historic plaques,” said Kara Warren, Preventive Conservation Specialist.

Lion sculpture in front of Biltmore House
One of the two grand marble lion sculptures that guard the Front Door of Biltmore House

According to Kara, each piece of outdoor sculpture is carefully examined and photographed every six months to determine its “health” and what type of cleaning, stabilization, or repairs might be needed.

There are four sphinx sculptures atop stone pillars guarding the massive iron entry and exit gates through which guests pass to get their first glimpse of Biltmore House.

The sphinx appears in Egyptian and Greek mythology as a creature with a human head and torso–usually female–and the hindquarters of a lion. Egypt’s massive Great Sphinx of Giza sculpture is probably the best-known example in the world.

The following photos illustrate how important Biltmore’s process is and what a difference cleaning and preservation make:

An outdoor statue comes clean
This elegant sphinx guards the right side of the iron gates adjacent to Biltmore House

This sphinx is turned as if to watch the Approach Road while the sphinx on the opposite side of the gates looks toward Biltmore House. The sculpture was in need of a thorough cleansing to rid it of biological growth. Scaffolding was built around the sphinx so our conservators could clean it in place.

An outdoor sculpture comes clean
Conservators carefully cleaned half of the sphinx to show a remarkable difference

Biltmore’s preservation experts worked on half of the sculpture at a time to illustrate different stages of the cleaning process. Note how much detail is revealed when the dark biological growth was removed from the hindquarters of this sphinx.

One of four outdoor sphinx statues at Biltmore
The sphinx sculpture cleaned and restored to her full glory

After a thorough cleaning, the classic sphinx sculpture once again welcomes guests to Biltmore House in regal style. 

Learn more about our extensive process to document, clean, and preserve our outdoor sculpture collection.

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.