7:49am

Sat April 30, 2011
Fine Art

An Artist Imagines The White House As It Once Was

Originally published on Sat April 30, 2011 8:33 am

The White House is a home, not a museum, so when presidents move in, they do what any new homeowner would do: they redecorate. Just like the rest of us, they paint, paper, change the furniture and carpets.

The White House has been "done over" many times, and now, the White House Historical Association has commissioned a set of pictures to explore what those famous rooms might have looked like at different moments in American history. The exhibit of 14 paintings by architectural painter Peter Waddell covers roughly the first 100 years of the White House, from 1792 to 1902.

"Few artists painted [the White House]," Waddell tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "It's a really hard building to paint decently. Compared with how ... many images there are of Mount Vernon, there's very few of the White House."

But, Waddell says, the interiors were even more complicated. Working with The White House Historical Association, Waddell looked at inventories, samples of fabrics, and furniture and fixtures still stored in the White House collection, to get the details exactly right: "We know how many yards of trim for the curtains," he says. "We know about the white sheer curtains with the little eagles on them. We know the colors of things."

The sheers were in the East Room of the White House as it may have looked in 1837, when Andrew Jackson was president. Today, the room is used for large gatherings and for White House news conferences. But Jackson may have been the first President to really use it.

"Until Jackson, it really hadn't been used at all," Waddell explains. "It wasn't decorated." But that didn't last. Waddell's painting (above) depicts an opulently decorated East Room — full of gold and tea and brocade. By today's sensibilities it looks overdone, but Waddell says that at the time, "gaudy was good. ... Bright color, shining surfaces were things that people craved in a time when the outside world was covered in dust and ground-up horse poo and, in winter, mud. I think when you went inside you wanted to be dazzled. ... If you wanted Earth tones, you could go outside for it."

Another one of Wadell's richly detailed paintings, The Splendid Mrs. Madison, depicts a party circa 1810, given in what was then called the Elliptical Saloon. Today, we know it as the Blue Room — but it wasn't blue yet.

When First Lady Dolley Madison held gatherings in the lavishly decorated space, the room was "the color of candlelight," Waddell says. Curtains were hung all around the room — not only over the windows, "so that it appeared that the fenestration went right round the room. It was like being in a merry-go-round almost."

The Madisons appear in the center of the painting — the First Lady is decked out in jewels that Waddell painted based on a firsthand account.

Another painting in the collection shows the Red Room in 1883, which was already red but very differently decorated — and with a surprising view of the Potomac River out the window. It's been many years since the river could be seen from the White House.

"When I first went to the White House, I thought that must be how it always was, Waddell says. "It was a big shock to discover that how you see it now is quite recent. It wasn't a museum. It was just a house that was endlessly redecorated."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Here's something you may not know about the White House - it's always been considered the president's home, not a museum. So, presidents and their wives have done what people do when they move into a new house - paint, paper, change the furniture and carpets, redecorate. The White House has been done over lots of times. The White House Historical Association has commissioned a set of pictures to show us what those famous rooms might have looked like at various periods.

So, we went over to the White House Visitor's Center to see them. Peter Waddell, who is an architectural painter, did the work, including some paintings of the exterior before the capital city grew up around it.

Mr. PETER WADDELL (Architectural Painter): Few artists painted it and I can sort of understand it 'cause it's a really hard building to paint decently. Compared with how many artists have painted Mount Vernon and how many images there are of Mount Vernon, there's very few of the White House.

WERTHEIMER: But, Waddell says, the interiors were even more complicated to paint.

Working with the White House Historical Association, Waddell looked at inventories, samples of fabrics, furniture and fixtures still stored in the White House collection, working to get the details right.

Mr. WADDELL: So, we know how many yards of trim for the curtains. We know about the white sheer curtains with the little eagles on them. We know the colors of things.

WERTHEIMER: Those sheers were in the East Room of the White House as it may have looked in 1837 when Andrew Jackson was president. Today, the room is used for large gatherings and for White House news conferences, but Jackson may have been the first president to use it.

Mr. WADDELL: Until Jackson, it really hadn't been used at all. It wasn't decorated.

WERTHEIMER: Well now, we have sort of red and gold and teal, brocade drapes, lots of gold over the mirrors and over the windows and gold around the top parts of the rooms. I'd have to say that these decorations, I would say they are, they're just right up on gaudy.

Mr. WADDELL: Gaudy is good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WADDELL: I'm afraid the idea of a sort of restrained and restful good taste had not occurred in this period - in fact, not until really the 20th century. Gaudiness, bright color, shining surface, I think were things that people craved in a time where the outside world was covered in dust and ground-up horse poo and, in winter, mud. I think when you went inside, you wanted to be dazzled and you didn't want to be soothed. If you wanted earth tones you could go outside for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: What about this great, honking cheese that's sitting in the middle of the floor on its very own special stand?

Mr. WADDELL: Jefferson had been given an enormous cheese. And not to be outdone, Jackson's political followers gave him a huge cheese, which arrived on a wagon festooned with flags, and then sat in the front hall of the White House for a year until his final reception, when they rolled it into the East Room and invited the public in to consume it, which the public did in two hours.

WERTHEIMER: A picture especially rich in detail is called "The Splendid Mrs. Madison." It shows a party, maybe around 1810, given in what was then called the Elliptical Salon; a round room in the middle of the main floor. We know it as the Blue Room but it wasn't blue yet. It was a kind of golden yellow.

Mr. WADDELL: The color of a candlelight, and they had also - they'd not only hung curtains over the windows, but they'd hung curtains over the niches at either side of the door, as well. So it appeared that the fenestration went right around the room. So it was like being in a merry-go-round almost.

WERTHEIMER: Fenestration being another word for windows.

Mr. WADDELL: For windows, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WADDELL: I beg your pardon.

WERTHEIMER: Am I correct that the pretty lady in pink with the white feathers on her head is Dolly?

Mr. WADDELL: It's Mrs. Madison with the great little Madison next to her. Her outfit and jewels created from a firsthand account. And she's being momentarily distracted by Decatur, the famous general and neighbor on Lafayette Square.

WERTHEIMER: And this must be the gentleman who's got all the gold braid on his outfit.

Mr. WADDELL: He is indeed covered with gold.

WERTHEIMER: What did you do, spend a lot of time with "Godey's Lady's Book" or something to look up the dresses?

Mr. WADDELL: "Godey's Lady's Book" is very good. There are a number...

WERTHEIMER: This is like a catalog of fashion.

Mr. WADDELL: Yeah, a sort of fashion book of the period, absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: Now, if I were better at recognizing people in the dear dead days beyond recall, would I recognize people in this picture?

Mr. WADDELL: Well, Washington Irving is right here.

WERTHEIMER: He - the fellow with the bangs?

Mr. WADDELL: The fellow with the bangs, indeed. And there are quite a lot of well-known people in this painting, as they were at Dolly's soirees, which were very famous. And I think if you go to the White House history website you can see this painting and click and find out who is who.

WERTHEIMER: There's also a painting in which the Red Room is already red, but very differently decorated with a surprising view of the Potomac River out the window. It's been many years since the river could be seen from the White House.

This exhibit of 14 paintings covers roughly the first century of the White House, up to about 1902.

Mr. WADDELL: When I first went to the White House I thought that must be how it always was. It was a big shock to discover that how you see it now is quite recent. It wasn't a museum. It was just a house that was endlessly redecorated.

WERTHEIMER: To look at the paintings, visit our website, NPR.org. You'll also find a link there for an interactive exhibit, where you can see the photos of some of the items that inspired Peter Waddell's re-creations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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