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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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In Walt Whitman’s Solace, 1865, the poet emerges from the shadows of a doorway. Whitman helped minister to some of the more than 4,000 Union troops housed in the Capitol during the Civil War (many were injured or ill) and was initially troubled by the contrast between the ailing soldiers and the lavish decor—“poppy-show goddesses and all the pretty blue and gold,” he described it. But he would also write that the opulence became a source of comfort to him.

 

“I think there is an element of shock when people see what the rooms looked like,” says Waddell. “They’re so decorated, gilded and ostentatious. It seems out of step with how Americans saw themselves.” Consider his rendition of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee Room as it looked circa 1856. The Italian-born artist Constantino Brumidi painted the vividly colored murals—inspired by Pompeian frescoes—and American artist George R. West created naval scenes in lunettes above the doorways. But following a dispute about payment for the work, West’s paintings were obliterated. Waddell has re-created one of the scenes in his rendering of the room, whose ornateness, according to Barbara Wolanin, curator for the Architect of the Capitol, caused quite a stir when the room was first opened for use in 1858. “All that elaborate painting, all those nymphs and cherubs, were considered outrageous at the time,” she says. In his painting, Waddell has also restored the room’s current green wall panels to their original blue and exposed the old Minton tile floor.

 

“Peter has brought bits of information together and made them become a reality,” says Senate curator Diane Skvarla, who, along with Allen and Wolanin, assisted the artist in his research. “That’s what makes the works exciting.” Waddell even enlisted Skvarla to pose for one of his paintings. In The Bather, 1869, she appears as a tourist who accidentally walks in on a senator emerging from a marble bathtub in the building’s basement. “It certainly made for a lot of conversation at the exhibition’s opening,” says Skvarla. When not in use, the tub, one of six made available to members of Congress whose living quarters lacked running water, was “always open to the inspection of visitors,” according to an 1860s newspaper account.

 

Waddell, who grew up in Hastings, a small town on New Zealand’s North Island, developed an early interest in history and architecture. “I used to like to climb up onto the roof of my house and look out,” he says. “Everything was flat, except for the municipal theater, the public library and some banks with neoclassical facades.” He was encouraged to pursue a career in the arts by his mother, Penny, a librarian and law clerk, and by his father, Colin, who owned a cabinetmaking business. “I grew up seeing things made from start to finish,” he says.

 

Waddell studied fine art at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. “The cutting edge had become very important in New Zealand,” he recalls. “Unless it was for the purpose of sledgehammer irony, it was very daring to portray a person in a painting. Narrative and historical subjects were essentially forbidden—and those were the things that fascinated me most.” As a young artist in Auckland, Waddell taught art at a local college and painted brightly colored figurative works using expressionistic brushwork.

 

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