Main Content

An Essay on "Composition in Red and Gold" by Peter Waddell

A Comfortable Room Rendered Richly, 1883

Copyright © White House Historical Association. All rights reserved under international copyright conventions. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for reprint permissions should be addressed to

Peter Waddell, Composition in Red and Gold, oil on canvas, 36 x 48.

Peter Waddell for the White House Historical Association

The Red Room was the only complete interior designer Louis Comfort 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 evenings 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 presidents 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.