During the recent inaugural ceremonies for America’s 44th president, Barack Obama, there was much discussion in the media regarding the peaceful succession of power evident in this and every American inauguration. It may be difficult for those of us living in the twenty-first century to understand, but in the eighteenth century the idea that one leader (let alone an elected leader) would peacefully turn over the leadership of a nation to another leader was a radically new idea.
The generation of Americans who founded the United States was unsure that their “experiment” would work. However, the first transitions went well, and by James Madison’s inauguration in 1809 this peaceful succession became something to commemorate. Artists like Thomas Gimbrede began to produce prints depicting these players on this new World stage. In 1812 Gimbrede sent Madison a version of his new print.
Madison and his wife Dolley were well aware of their place in this newly formed government. In 1804, the Madisons began collecting portraits of the presidents, beginning with one of then-president Thomas Jefferson, under whom James was serving as Secretary of State, as well as one of George Washington. By the early 1820s they had also acquired portraits of John Adams, our second president, and James Monroe, our fifth. Many visitors to Montpelier noted these portraits were displayed in the Drawing Room of the house, including one who observed that they were all “hanging together in a corner of the room” (“Mr. Madison. (Extract of a Letter),” Salem Gazette (Salem, MA), 11/20/1835).
As part of the restoration of Montpelier, the architectural research team mapped all of the nail holes that survived in the plaster of the Drawing Room–the only room in the mansion to retain its original plaster. Using this physical evidence in conjunction with visitor descriptions, the curatorial department determined that the presidential portraits were displayed on the wall to the right as one enters the room.
The size of the known portraits and the length of the wall indicated that no more than three portraits could have been hung in a row. The physical evidence supported this possibility, as there were nail holes evident that could have been used for the nails to hang three portraits. In addition evidence of a nail hole right below the cornice suggested another location from which an additional portrait could have been hung. Given that Gimbrede sent Madison a version of his print several years before the Madisons retired to Montpelier, the combined evidence suggested that in a portrait group of presidential portraits the one of George Washington would be raised higher than the others to give it prominence and to suggest his elevated station as the first president.
Notably, the Madisons chose not to hang James’ portrait in the middle of this presidential grouping. They instead hung it along side of his wife Dolley on the opposite wall. Perhaps suggesting a certain sense of humility, this choice most certainly indicates the Madisons’ wish to be presented alongside of one another to the many visitors they entertained.
to be continued…
Image credits: Thomas Gimbrede print “American Star,” Library of Congress. The paintings illustrated are copies of those believed to have originally been owned by the Madisons including: Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, Clarkson University; Portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull, National Portrait Gallery; Portrait of James Monroe by John Vanderlyn, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The original portraits of James and Dolley Madison by Gilbert Stuart are owned respectively by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and The White House. Montpelier Drawing Room photographs copyright Montpelier Foundation.