Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dolley Madison and the Lansdowne Portrait

When I was in elementary school, I had to give a report on Dolley Madison. I was fascinated with Dolley's life, and poured over a children's version of her biography. I remember being particularly interested in how the first lady had to flee from the White House during the War of 1812.

One thing that I didn't learn from my project (or at least, I don't remember learning), was that before Dolley Madison's flight from the White House, she ensured that a portrait of George Washington would be kept safe from the British soldiers. This portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1796, shown right), is often called the "Lansdowne portrait," since at one point it was given as a gift of appreciation to William Petty, the Marquess of Lansdowne (Great Britain). The portrait depicts a significant point in American history, showing Washington renouncing a third term as president.

Dolley Madison called this portrait "iconic" and delayed her flight from the White House until she was able to arrange for the painting's safekeeping. She wrote to her sister, "I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured." This month's edition of Smithsonian magazine has a very interesting article that gives more details about Dolley Madison's flight and the portrait.

Ever since my elementary school report, I've always admired Dolley Madison. But now knowing the fundamental role she played in preserving an important work of art, I like her even more.