In the early years of the new United States, Presidents and Ex-Presidents had pride of place among the celebrities that attracted public interest. The fascination with James Madison stemmed from the notable role he played in the creation of the Constitution, and his outliving all his compatriots to become the “last of the Founders.” Foreigners and American citizens alike were anxious to meet the man who served as President and beat a path to his door, and retirement did little to diminish this appeal.
Today, Montpelier is the benefactor of James and Dolley Madison’s celebrity and the open door policy that reigned in Virginia. Many who came to see the Madisons in retirement recorded their impressions of the famous pair, their hospitality, and the house and its contents in letters to friends and family or in articles in newspapers and magazines. Montpelier staff has determinedly been collecting these accounts for many years because, when considered as a whole, they offer some of the best insights into life in the Madison household after their retirement from public life.
When visitors stepped through the front door they were ushered into the Drawing Room (108). Virtually every visitor entered this space in the center of the house, and it is the room which the site has selected to recreate first. George Shattuck was one of a number of guests who remarked on the view seen upon entering “. . . there are three windows to the east, reaching down to the floor and opening upon a piazza and upon a lawn.” These tall sash windows opened upwards to form doors to the outside where young Anne Mercer Slaughter tells us “. . . jessamine and roses , . . twined around the pillars of the rear porch, and gave an air of indescribable charm to the whole scene . . .”
In 1827 the Drawing Room inspired lawyer Henry Gilpin to write:
much of the furniture of the room had the appearance of Presidential splendour, such as sofas covered with crimson damask on each side, three or four large looking glasses &c – & every thing displayed in its arrangement great order neatness & taste – for which I fancy Mrs. Madison is remarkable.
The feature of the room which garnered comments from most visitors was the many works of art – paintings and sculptures. Margaret Bayard Smith wrote in 1828 that:
The drawing-room walls are covered with pictures, some very fine, from the ancient masters, but most of them portraits of our most distinguished men, six or eight by Stewart. The mantelpiece, tables in each corner and in fact wherever one could be fixed, were filled with busts, and groups of figures in plaster, so that this apartment had more the appearance of a museum of the arts than of a drawing room. It was a charming room, giving activity to the mind, by the historic and classic ideas that it awakened.
Previous posts on this blog have offered a brief glimpse at the first element of the furnishings to be recreated – the 16 oil paintings that hung on the walls of the drawing room. This project, completed in 2008 and made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, owed much to visitor accounts, which aided scholars in determining where each of the works hung. But the recreation of the paintings is just the beginning of efforts to recreate the room in its entirety. Visitor accounts will supply many clues as the site tackles research on the sculpture, furniture, carpets, curtains, “electrical machine,” and pianoforte that filled the room.
One example of what is to come . . .
Nail holes in the original plaster walls provide evidence that large objects hung on either side of the entrance door. These could have been taken as evidence of additional paintings, except for the information found in several visitor accounts. Benjamin Latrobe’s son John noted that walls were “. . . covered with paintings, save where two immense mirrors on the side at which you enter conceal large portions.”
Montpelier will use the nail hole information to compare against mirrors purported to have been owned by James Madison in search of a match. Failing that, the site can look for period mirrors with the same dimensions or commission reproduction frames that match the nail hole evidence. And, as researchers delve into a wealth of documentary sources, there is the possibility an order or letter may surface to provide more details about the mirrors.
– Montpelier Curatorial Staff
All images in this post copyright Montpelier Foundation.