An Artist Visits the White House Past

Paintings by Peter Waddell

Composition in Red and Gold

A Comfortable Room Rendered Richly, 1883

First Ladies in President Chester Arthur's Tiffany Red Room, by Waddell

Peter Waddell, Composition in Red and Gold, oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″, © White House Historical Association.

Essay by William Seale

The Red Room was the only complete interior Tiffany created for the White House. Redesigned in high aesthetic taste (meaning “art-like”) the room was first called the Red Room some thirty-five years before, during the administration of James K. Polk. It is shown here about 1883, during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur, transformed from the old-fashioned room it had become. All the furniture was removed as well as the architectural elements; only the earlier gas chandelier remained. The marble mantelpiece was replaced by a new one of polished wood framing gilded Morocco panels, ornamental tiles, and brass. In the only surviving photograph that can be said beyond a doubt to be Tiffany’s Red Room, the photographer placed his camera where the open door is shown here. Artist Waddell has selected a view nearly opposite, for which the photograph was supplemented by the contractors’ written records.

Even as well-documented as the interior is, the historical record deprives the artist entirely of the original colors—which were indeed more color effects than single colors—but he has based his selections on the Aesthetic preferences of the time and the many written descriptions, which often stretch to describe the unusual tones and shades. Various types of glazing were applied to achieve dramatically nuanced color in the walls and trim, changing in the play of daylight through the tall windows and evening’s light from the gas chandelier and kerosene lamp. As with the adjacent Blue Room, dark color at the base of the walls thinned as it rose toward the cornice, with applications of colored shellac. At the ceiling the Red Room was crowned by a galaxy of copper and silver stars that shimmered in reflection, contrasting with the absorbent walls.

Tiffany’s were the first White House interiors that made news. Considered modern and artistic, the Red Room was probably the most highly acclaimed of all. A comfortable, even cozy room, it was still occasionally used as a family sitting room and often the place where the family received visitors. Here the long window is open to the South Portico, so that two of the president’s three sisters, Molly McElroy and Malvina Haynesworth, might enjoy the good weather and the view. The Scottie beneath the table, named Tot, the favorite pet of Arthur’s twelve-year-old daughter Nellie, gained a measure of newspaper fame by biting the president.

Historical Resources for Composition in Red and Gold
  • Appleton, D. Artistic Houses; Being a Series of Interior Views of a Number of the Most Beautiful and Celebrated Homes in the United States, 1883.
  • Banham, Joanna, Sally MacDonald, and Julia Porter. Victorian Interior Design. Crescent Books, 1991.
  • Peck, Amelia. Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875 1900. Yale University Press, 2001.
  • New York Times. “Miss Nellie Arthur’s Dog,” April 27, 1884.
  • Washington Post. “The White House Mistress,” November 10, 1881.
  • Washington Post. “Aesthetic Decoration,” December 20, 1882.
  • Washington Post. “The Executive Palace,” October 1, 1883.
  • Washington Post. “The Red Parlor of the White House,” December 14, 1884.