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The Splendid Mrs. Madison by Peter Waddell

The Splendid Mrs. Madison by Peter Waddell

Peter Waddell
Date of Work
Historical Depiction
Peter Waddell for the White House Historical Association

The Splendid Mrs. Madison by Peter Waddell

In the Elliptical Saloon, 1810-1814. Peter Waddell, The Splendid Mrs. Madison, oil on canvas, 48 x 60.

In his 2012 painting of a Madison levee, artist Peter Waddell combined puzzle-like a mass of details. Memoirs, private letters, household papers, and surviving artifacts such as costumes bring to life his interpretation of the oval saloon—today’s Blue Room—as it might have appeared at one of Dolley Madison’s lamplit receptions.

The object of these occasions, for all the fun they provided, was pure business. Rival political factions had heretofore boiled separately in local taverns, where the lawmakers lived. They swarmed to the White House levees and behaved themselves commendably in the presence of gracious women and colleagues who, but for politics, could be their friends.

Waddell’s painting—oil on canvas—shows the very large scale of the White House compared to other American houses. Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s designs were carried out in the plate mirror, with its playful frame, and in mirrored alcoves (those flanking the hall doorway) that reflected the south-facing windows across the room. Red velvet drapery, made in Georgetown by Mary Sweeney, pleased Mrs. Madison but were considered gaudy by Latrobe—although the red velvet was all he could procure in large yardage on short notice.

The handsome naval officer, Stephen Decatur, stands center, talking to Dolley Madison in pink. Other guests include local gentry from the district, Maryland, and Virginia and a mix of congressmen and senators. One can imagine the awe and delight the hardworking members found in such genteel surroundings. One of the roles of the White House through time has been to make guests feel on top of the world.

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