Politically Correct

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

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It wasn’t until 1993, when a collector in Boston commissioned him to do a painting of Alexander the Great, that Waddell began introducing figures in period dress into architectural settings. “I started to make historical costumes for my models to wear,” he says. “I always loved the photos of my great-grandmother in her bustles, hats and gloves.” 



These days, Waddell is the artist-in-residence at Tudor Place Historic House and Garden in Washington, designed by original Capitol architect William Thornton for Martha Custis Peter (granddaughter of Martha Washington) and her husband. “It’s the perfect situation for me,” says Waddell. “The estate was home to six generations of a family that never threw anything out. Every object tells a story about the people who lived there.”


The Capitol has always been a place of low-down in trigue and ambition as well as lofty aspiration, but much of the appeal of Waddell’s paintings lies in his depiction of a lost innocence. The Marble Room—An Evening’s Work, 1871 captures that nicely. Based on a detail taken from a historical chronicle by Senator Robert Byrd, it shows two young pages chasing bats out of the Senate lounge.


Yet Waddell’s works, for all their charm, accommodate the view that history is not always picturesque. “One senator recently wanted to restore his office to its original appearance and was quite displeased when he found out that it had been an eight-seater privy,” says Waddell. “The past is not always how you imagined.”


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