During an 18-month stay in Washington, D.C., from 1803 to 1805, Gilbert Stuart was in constant demand to paint the worthy citizens of the young national capital. Not all commissions were congenial. When the husband of an unattractive woman pressed him to try a third time for a pleasing likeness, he refused: “You bring [a painter] a potato and expect he will paint you a peach!”1 At the other extreme, he had the pleasure of painting the portrait of the lovely Dolley Madison. At 36, she was described as possessing “unassuming dignity, sweetness, grace.”2
At the time that the Madisons sat for their portraits, James Madison was secretary of state in Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet. The two men were the closest of personal and political friends and when Jefferson, a widower, needed a hostess for many White House gatherings, Dolley Madison often gladly served in that capacity. The portrait that now graces the White House is thus of an acting first lady who would officially fill the role five years later. She was to become one of the most admired first ladies in U.S. history. In 1804, she wrote her sister, Anna Payne Cutts, that “Stewart has taken an admirable picture of Mr. Madison—his and mine are finished.”3 (Stuart’s portrait of Anna is also in the White House collection.)
Dolley Madison’s pose, her torso turned three-quarters to her right, her face and gaze turned back toward the viewer, complements the pose of her husband as he turns slightly toward her.4 One should not forget this intended balance when viewing such companion portraits separately. The composition of her portrait was already commonplace in Stuart’s repertory, and he could have painted the background in his sleep. But he was wide awake when he painted Dolley Madison. The portrait conveys his regard for her intelligence, shrewdness, and affability. Stuart’s refined technique is manifest, with astonishing subtleties of modeling and brushwork. The face exhibits masterful transitions of tone. The eye sockets, lids, and greyish-blue eyes are exquisitely nuanced. There is virtually no linearity, no overstatement of feature. In examining the chin, for example, one sees that Stuart did not draw its contour with the brush. Rather, he built up the surface with thin, transparent layers of paint, then defined the chin with thicker touches for highlights and shadow.
Dolley Madison’s coiffure and costume have been succinctly described by fashion authority Michele Majer. She is dressed in the French fashion, in the “popular white dress with deep décolletage and short, draped, elbow-baring sleeves. Her hair is arranged in the neoclassical style with a chignon or bun at the back of the head and loose ringlets framing the face. . . . her love of dress—and of Parisian modes especially—made her something of a fashion model. . . . When [she] appeared in public, her toilettes were those of an élégante. . . . this style won for her only praise.”5 This costume is painted with élan. The improvisatory touches of paint in the dress, especially in the bodice and its lace edging, are visually exciting, as is the wonderful freedom of the transparent draping of the sleeve. Two contrasting examples of Stuart’s skill are the gold chain wound around the neck, which is delicately drawn with the brush and highlighted with tiny dabs of paint, and the yellow-gold shawl, which is conjured up with a virtuosic calligraphy of brushstrokes. The warm reds and golds of the accessories are the perfect foil for the white dress and Dolley Madison’s ivory flesh tones and black hair, and unite with her rouged cheeks to express her personal warmth.
The portrait is in an exceptional state of preservation. The fluid paint textures have not been flattened by relining nor the delicate highlights seriously abraded. The portrait survived the burning of the White House in August 1814 because it and its pendant of James Madison were at Montpelier, the Madison homestead in Virginia. Both portraits remained with relatives until sold at auction in 1899. The cataloguer described Stuart’s painting as “the only portrait in existence of Dolley P. Madison, the most beautiful lady that ever trod the floors of the White House,” adding that it was “known by every art connoisseur in the world.”6
Essay by William Kloss, Art in the White House, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 2008), 78. Copyright © 2008 by White House Historical Association.
To see the complete collection of the official portraits of the U.S. Presidents, go to WhiteHouse.gov/Art.
1 Quoted in Charles Merrill Mount, Gilbert Stuart, A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964), p. 252.
2 Margaret Bayard Smith, letter to Susan B. Smith, March 1809, “Washington in Jefferson’s Time,” in Washington, D.C.: A Turn-of-the-Century Treasury (Secaucus, N.J.: Castle, 1987), p. 59.
3 Dolley Madison to Anna Payne Cutts, May 20, n.d. , Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
4 Now in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg.
5 Michele Majer, “American Women and French Fashion,” in The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire, 1789–1815 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), pp. 234–5.
6 Auction rooms of Davis & Harvey, 1112 Walnut St., Philadelphia, Pa., Catalog No. 821, part VI, Tuesday, May 9, 1899, no. 2. The portrait was sold to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which lent it to the White House from 1970 until 1994 when it was acquired for the White House collection. Despite the cataloger’s assertion, there were in fact other portraits of Dolley Madison.