Newport to Paris; High Courts, Revolution, and the Voyage Home

Part 2 of the Vernon Mona Lisa

As a child, I had an active imagination. I saw my bicycle as a horse and our backyard as wild open spaces in which I rode. As an adult, while cooking multi-stepped vegetarian meals, I imagined being on television with my own cooking show. Now, immersed in the research of the Vernon Mona Lisa, I fantasize that I am on one of my favorite shows “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. After uncovering pieces of the Vernon past, those that I am deeply saddened and ashamed by, I hear Mr. Gates asking me, “Upon learning this, how does it make you feel?”

I’ve had to grapple with my feelings over the past month as I uncovered the business of William Henry Vernon Sr. but that is where my journey to the Vernon Mona Lisa must begin. William Henry Sr. (1719 – 1806) was a prominent figure in Newport, RI. He rose to the rank of President of the Eastern Navy Board. He and his brother Samuel owned a fleet of ships that sailed the seas buying and selling rum, molasses, flour, and leather before expanding their business to include the Atlantic Slave Trade. There aren’t words to describe how heavy that part of my ancestry sits in my heart. I also see that this syndrome of selfish cruelty is still thriving among our human family today.

William Henry Vernon Jr. (1759 – 1833) was expected to embrace the family business and assume his place in Newport society. When he graduated from Princeton at the age of 18, his father sent him to France to gain the confidence necessary for trading among nations. He was sent to Paris with a letter from his father to Ben Franklin, the American ambassador to France, to see that his boy become a man. The length of his stay was to be two years.

From the moment Ben Franklin introduced young William to the high courts of France, a father's plans altered course. No longer under a paternal watchful eye, two years turned into nineteen. Despite his father’s demands to return to Newport, William was taken with the lifestyle of the French aristocracy. He spent much of his time in the courts of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI. He dressed like royalty, ate, drank like royalty, and collected art like royalty.

William Henry returned to Newport near the end of the French Revolution in 1797. Records say that he boarded the ship with a boy, a servant and, among his possessions, fifty two masterworks by artists such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian, Veronese, Van Dyck, and a painting he called “The Nun” attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. The history and mystery of The Nun, or the Vernon Mona Lisa as it was later referred to, will be the focus of my June News. Stay tuned!

*Black and white photo of the Vernon House in Newport, RI.