Politically Correct

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

“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.”

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.

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.

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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