Face-to-Face: Dolley Madison portrait

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Ellen Miles: Thanks, Joel, thanks very much.

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OK what we are seeing here is William Elwell's portrait of Dolley Madison, painted when she was about 80 years old. It was actually painted right here in Washington.

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And so, it is an interesting situation because we're seeing her at the end of her life. Half a life ago, when she was 40, was when her husband James Madison became President of the United States, 4th President.

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So what happened in the meantime? Well, just before that, those of you who know about her, you know that she always had a reputation for being outgoing, and charming, and fun, and interested in people.

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And, when the Capital was moved to Washington from Philadelphia in 1800, her husband was Secretary of State, so she came to Washington in 1800, and that's actually when her portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart, which is at the National Gallery.

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So then she, in 1808, she became First Lady and of course Madison was President until 1816 or 1817, at which point they moved back to Virginia to Montpelier, where he spent the rest of his life.

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So then he died in 1836, and at that point, Dolley gradually moved back to Washington. Gradually because at first, she came for a short period of time each year to a house that belonged to her sister, on Lafayette Square and then eventually moved there permanently.

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Spent the last 12 years of her life here in Washington. And, at that point, those of you that know her story, once she was first lady she had famous receptions, Wednesday night receptions, at the White House that people could come to.

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And she decorated the White House, she and Lotrobe collected the furniture and designed wonderful red curtains, were one of the things she was very proud of.

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She hung portraits of various people in the dining room, in the state dining room. She was a person who was very aware of the importance of history, and of her situation as the First Lady in Washington.

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When, after they moved to Montpelier and after Madison died, or towards the end of his life, he was very impoverished as, as a planter. And, after he died, there was very little money left in his estate for her.

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She sold his papers to Congress, so they are now in the Library of Congress. And, as I said, moved to Washington.

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So here we see her at age almost 80. She is wearing the turban that became, had become her characteristic hat, headdress since the days she was First Lady. She is wearing a black dress, apparently always after her husband died she wore black, which would be typical at that time.

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But, she is wearing a wonderful red shawl. And, she, her eyes are very, are blue but very cloudy, which may be cataracts, or maybe apparently she had suffered from eye infections when she was older.

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The artist, William Elwell, was a younger, much younger man 38 years old, from Springfield, Massachusetts. And, we really don't know how he managed to get the sittings with Dolley Madison.

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But he had been in Richmond, and then he came to Washington, and he tells us in his diary that he met her and then he painted her portrait.

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He may have met her because of her/his his teacher Chester Harding who was a Springfield and Boston artist who actually painted James Madison, the portrait is on the other side of the Jackson portrait on the wall.

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And that was painted at the Constitutional Convention for the state of Virginia, which was in Richmond in 1829. I mean, Elwell wasn't there, but it's possible that that's how he got the introduction to the Madisons.

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At any rate, he came to Washington, painted her portrait and he left us a wonderful description of her.

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He was charmed by her, so we do have that sense of her as a person. He said, he described her as "A very estimable lady. Kind and obliging. One of the old school. Fluent in her conversation, interested in all the events of the day. As lively and as blooming as a miss of 16, though this bloom was artificial," he wrote.

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"The rouge being applied in a most delicate and artistic manner." [[laughter]] And not only that but the black curls, if you think about it now, she's 80, the black curls also were fake curls and she'd stick them up under her turban to make her, to look younger.

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He enjoyed talking to her. He must have told her that he was a struggling artist and that he and that he was trying to get commissions. We can imagine the conversation.

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And that maybe he could find a government job. All we know is that within a few years he did have a job at the Treasury Department as a clerk.

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We find him in the city directory a few years later listed in that job. But then he sadly had a stroke and moved back to Massachusetts and spent the rest of his life not so well, not so good circumstances.

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But he remembered her, he remembered her conversations with her. She gave him a gilt edge teacup, that she said had been one of the serving cups at the White House. And of course if you think that by this time she really had lost most of what she'd had for two reasons, and I'll come to the second in a minute, when she was the wife of the president. That's really special to him, that he gave her this teacup and he also gave her an autograph of President Madison.

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Now, the second part of the portrait story, in a way, is that he called her "A heroic noble woman" and this was when she told him the story of how she had rescued the portrait of George Washington.

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And I think all of you know this story, people ask us often, and if you, after we finish, if you go around the corner, you'll see the first version of what is known today as the "Lansdowne Portrait", the full length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stewart, which was painted toward the end of his presidency.

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And people often ask us when they come here, they say "Is that the one that's usually in the White House?". It's not, it's the first version and the White House one is the fourth version.

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There are two others, there's one at the Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia and one at the Brooklyn Museum. So, Stewart typically of 18th century portrait painters would start, make a life portrait and then he would make replicas, we'd call them, if someone commissioned the portrait, a replica.

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Now, the story is wonderfully complex as all of these 18th century stories are, and as all Stewart stories are, because the portrait that is in the White House, and it's there today, and if you watch the president in news conferences or in special receptions you can see it. On other night he was on television and I could see Washington's feet behind him on the television. So, the portrait is there.

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When Stewart came to Washington DC in 1800, cause the portrait was acquired for the U.S. government, well actually, it was acquired in 1800 and then in 1802 Stewart moved to Washington or came to Washington first before his move.

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And he told Mrs. Thornton, Mrs. William Thornton the wife of the architect, that he didn't paint the portrait that the government owned in the White House, well it was then the President's house; but, he bargained for it.

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And we're not sure what that means. For a long time people used to say, recently, it's not by Stewart, several people would quote, be quoted as saying "That's not by Stewart.".

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But, it's more likely that what it is, is that by the time of the fourth version, Stewart wasn't painting the whole portrait, that he had painting assistants in his studio or in another studio in Philadelphia helping him to finish these large pictures. That would be also typical of a, of a portrait painter at that time.

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And that he might of meant that, that he paid other people to help finish the portrait. We don't know because the documentation for Stewart is very thin, we just have lots of stories.

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But, at any rate, the portrait was in the President's house, starting when the first president started to use the house, which was Jefferson in 1800 or just after that. And, if you fast forward a bit to the war of 1812, which you all know was called, "President Madison's War."

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Of course the British marched on Washington in 1814. And, Dolly Madison, this is August 1814, and Dolly Madison was still at the White House, apparently, from what I read a little bit, people really didn't think this was going to happen, they really didn't believe that the British were, are that close. So, she waited in the White House or in the President's House and she was waiting for Madison to come back and then they would make a decision.

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And she wrote her sister on August 23rd, she said she could hear the cannon at the Battle of Bladensburg, that's how close the British were at that point.

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She said, "Our dear friend Mr., our kind friend Mr. Carole has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured. And it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments. I have ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas taken out. It is done and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York for safe keeping. And now dear sister, I must leave this house or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take.". So they, there is a wonderful image of her leaving Washington with.

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And people say "Well, did she cut it out of the frame?", but, clearly what they did is they broke the frame and took the painting out and probably on its stretcher, put it in this cart with various other things, and, and left the city.

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Fully 30-some years later, when this portrait was painted, she was reminiscing about this event, people knew her, knew her for doing this. Cause the portrait of Washington was, after the war, was returned to the White House, after the White House was rebuilt.

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So it's been there ever since. So it's still there today. It rarely leaves the White House, it came here for an exhibition at one point and for some conservation but it rarely leaves that, that setting.

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In 1848, the man who had helped rescue the portrait wrote her to confirm the story. And, she was, she confirmed to him that this is what she said to him.

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"Mr. Barker, I wish, if you cannot save them, to destroy the portrait of General Washington, the eagles, which ornament the drawing room, and the four cases of papers which you will find in the President's private room. The portrait, I'm very anxious to say, as it is the only original by Stuart, at all events do not let them fall into the hands of the enemy, as their capture would enable them to make a great finish."

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And I think you can see what she's saying. She's saying that the image of--and we can imagine that of course now with the age of cameras rolling and maybe CSPAN covering the event, or CNN, or something--if the British had captured the portrait of Washington, it was virtually like saying "he'd captured Washington", "he'd captured the first President." So she was very eager to get it out the British hands.

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So we come back to her in 1848, talking to this young artist from Springfield, Massachusetts. She recounts that event, and that's what makes him describe her as a noble heroic lady.

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So I think, although this is a portrait of Dolley at 80, not Dolley when she was in the White House, I think her, her spunk and her liveliness and her outgoing nature, this is a testimony in this portrait to that, to those characteristics. So that's why we're all fond of it.

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Now. This is when we were, doing an exhibition when we were closed. We did an exhibition that traveled called Brush with History, and we included some of our key portraits in it, and this was one of the portraits.

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And we didn't know about the artist's comments at that time, but there was a little piece of paper in the curatorial file that said "Artist's diary, Springfield Historical Society."

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So we took that opportunity to get the copy of the diary entries, and because of that we have this wonderful testimony from a man, who was otherwise very little know in the history of American portraiture--this artist who painted Dolley Madison at age 80.

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So that's my close up face-to-face with Dolley.

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And I'd be glad to answer questions, if anybody has any?

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Ellen Miles: No, I think that was her name. Yeah. Dolley Payne Todd Madison.

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SPEAKER 2: Was she related to the Todd family of Marymount?

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Ellen Miles: She was married to. I think that Todd was her first husband who died. And she was Payne. That was her maiden name. She was a Quaker from a Quaker family in Virginia.

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SPEAKER 3: Was she friends at all with Elizabeth Kortright Monroe?

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Ellen Miles: Um. I don't know because the Monroes at this time I think were in Paris. I don't know. I know she was more friends with Mrs. Thornton and a lot of the people who were in Washington under Jefferson's administration. About the Monroes I off-hand do not know.

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There's wonderful material about her. Her letters have been published recently. Fairly recently. There's a book about women in political society that's been published talking about her role and really establishing the way a democratic government would work in the new capitol because Jefferson of course was not married,

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so the whole idea of having receptions at the White House was not something that, well she did that apparently served as his hostess, but she was really the one, the Madison's were the one that opened up the White House in a more formal way to regular receptions. Just the way Martha Washington had done in Philadelphia.

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Ellen Miles: Well thank you all for coming. Come back to the rest of the first ladies later on. Thanks. [[applause]]

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Ellen Miles: No this is, this you, this, these are fake curls tucked under her turban. Because she was 80. So the dark brown curls are something that has been added. By her. Thank you.