Politically Correct

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

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Waddell, wrote Washington Times art critic Joanna Shaw-Eagle of the Octagon show, “has brought a romantic, even surrealist, sensibility to painting the historic buildings of Washington,” and Roll Call critic John McArdle called the exhibition “a stunning and nostalgic glimpse of the places and stories that existed inside the Capitol building.” The Spirit of Washington, 1842, for instance, shows the Rotunda capped by architect Charles Bulfinch’s original wood-and-copper dome. Bonneted ladies wearing crinoline skirts waft through the grand atrium. Some of the women study the large historical paintings on the walls while others seem to avert their eyes from Horatio Greenough’s controversial statue of a partially clad George Washington.


“The painting records a very specific period,” says the Capitol’s architectural historian, William Allen, noting that Greenough’s sculpture, which depicted America’s founding father as a Greek god, remained inside the Capitol for only two years before being banished to the building’s east lawn. (The statue now resides in the National Museum of American History.) “It is the first color rendition of a room that hasn’t looked that way since 1855,” adds Allen.


A stickler for historical accuracy, Waddell based his paintings on written descriptions of the structure over the years, and on a handful of early prints, photographs and architectural plans. He gleaned most of the details for his depiction of the original dome and Rotunda from a sketch done in the 1830s by a New York architect. “Waddell takes the information, blows it up and completes it,” says Allen.


To help the artist portray the original Library of Congress while it was being built around 1821 in the Capitol’s center section just off the west portico, Allen referred Waddell to an old carpenter’s handbook that showed the ceiling’s wood-truss system (destroyed by fire in 1851). In the painting, amid laborers and engineers, scaffolding and brick, a winch hoists great sandstone pieces of the Corinthian columns—the Capitol’s only columns not fashioned entirely of single blocks of stone. “It may be a little detail,” says Allen, “but if he had shown it otherwise, it wouldn’t have been right.”


In one of his works, Waddell portrays B. Henry Latrobe, an early Capitol architect, giving a private tour to Madame Betsy Patterson Bonaparte in 1812. The notorious American beauty, who scandalized Washington society with her sheer, formfitting gowns, was then married to Napoléon’s youngest brother, Jerome. (The marriage was later annulled by Napoléon.) Waddell portrays another historic personage, Samuel F.B. Morse, in the building’s basement wiring up a telegraph demonstration for members of Congress. In the painting, Morse—also an accomplished artist—comes across an obviously neglected sculpture he had made 20 years earlier and presented to architect Charles Bulfinch.



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