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Politically Correct

Artist Peter Waddell's scrupulously researched paintings of the U.S. Capitol bring history to life

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“When people think of the U.S. capitol,” says Peter Waddell, “it’s usually as a backdrop for some trench-coated newsman reporting live from its steps.” Not Waddell; the New Zealand native has been in thrall with the building since his first visit to Washington, D.C. in 1991. “It was the middle of the winter,” he says, “and everything was quiet and hushed. The stone, the marble, the sky—they were all silvery gray and bathed in this kind of strange, pearly light.”

 

Since moving to Washington in 1995, Waddell, a 47-year old artist specializing in historical subjects, has spent two and a half years creating 20 carefully researched paintings that vividly reconstruct the Capitol’s interiors as they appeared from about 1812 to 1875. These works are now on view at the American Architectural Foundation’s OctagonMuseum in Washington (through October 15). “The building was a vital part of the social and cultural life in the city in the 19th century,” says Waddell. “My interest was not in political subjects but in the lives of the people who built and visited the Capitol.”

 

Author and historian David McCullough shares the artist’s view of the Capitol’s significance. “It’s our most important building,” he says. “It’s our castle, it’s our shrine, and Waddell has snapped it to life. Maybe only someone born elsewhere, with a different perspective, could remind us how wonderful it is.”

 

McCullough believes that Waddell’s somewhat fanciful renderings are more historically accurate even than photographs from the period. “There’s a tendency to think of the Victorian era as dour, gloomy and overbearing, with morbid darks and lights,” he says. “That’s primarily due to our familiarity with 19th-century portraits, where no one smiles and the subjects had to hold still because of the slow shutter speed. That wasn’t how people were then. Waddell has captured the spirit of those interiors. He shows them as colorful, rich and romantic—as a whole world unto itself.”

 

Waddell’s paintings invoke a time when men and women could wander freely through the Capitol’s halls, chambers and vestibules—rooms in which a good deal more than government and politics took place. (Today visitors must be part of an official tour to see anything inside the Capitol and even then access is limited to a few major spaces such as the Rotunda.) The main attraction, then as now, were Congressional sessions, but in the early days visitors could also attend religious services, join in celebrations of national holidays, witness demonstrations of the latest scientific innovations or simply marvel at the building’s grandeur. “I wanted to paint the rooms as they appeared when they were new,” says Waddell, “and to show what they meant to the people who used them at the time.”

 

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