This week, Log Lines is pleased to feature a post by guest blogger Rachel Penman, curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit 1812: A Nation Emerges. For more information on the exhibit and the Gallery, follow this link.
In creating an exhibition to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 at the National Portrait Gallery, we approached the topic as a human-interest story, rather than a military history. One of our goals was to make these seemingly remote figures approachable to a modern audience, not with a lot of bells and whistles, but with a piercing gaze through the power of great art. In selecting portraits for “1812: A Nation Emerges,” we tried to get portraits made from life, as close to 1812-15 as we could, resulting in images as realistic as possible before the age of photography. The young officers appear quite dashing, the ladies of Dolley Madison’s court glamorous, and Henry Clay looks as if he could talk you into buying something you don’t really need. These were some of the smartest, most powerful and charismatic people of their time, part of that “splendid constellation,” as John C. Calhoun called it, who dared to defy the most powerful country in the world.
Of course the Americans of 1812 applied the same scrutiny to the leaders and luminaries they met as we do today. Sure, there were those who stood up to their reputations, such as the “uncommonly handsome” Stephen Decatur, or the 6’5” “god of war” Winfield Scott. An American soldier once declared the Shawnee chief Tecumseh “perhaps the finest looking man I ever saw,” despite the fact he fought for the British. While James Madison was famously a target of social disappointment, Dolley, on the other hand, ruled any room she entered, impressing beyond expectations. One guest remarked, “She looks like an Amazon: he like one of the puny knights of Lilliputia.”
DOLLEY DANDRIDGE PAYNE TODD MADISON
Gilbert Stuart (3 Dec 1755 – 9 Jul 1828)
Oil on canvas, 1804
White House Collection, Gift of the
Walter H. & Phyllis
J. Shorenstein Foundation
in memory of Phyllis
Samuel Lovett Waldo (6 Apr 1783 – 16 Feb 1861)
Copy after: Gilbert Stuart (3 Dec 1755 – 9 Jul 1828)
Oil on canvas, 1834?
Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis