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.

  • e says:

    I love the story of Dolley Madison!

    I knew that she had saved the portrait, but it was really neat to read about it in further detail in the article. I LOVE my subscription!

    You probably already know this, but there's few versions of Stuart's painting. The one Dolley saved is still in the White House and there's one at the NPG. I want to say there's one at Mt. Vernon, too (but I'm not certain). Anyway, Stuart made each version just slightly different from the other.

    When I was in the White House, the secret service agent "guarding" the painting told me that this version (the one in the White House) is different from the others in that the title on one of the books (lower left corner) is spelled wrong or alternatively. He said the other versions also have some other little, nearly hidden thing that makes them different, too.

    Since being told that, I've gone and looked at the one at the NPG but I can't figure out what is different about that one. Then again, it's not like you're allowed to get close to the one in the White House, so I couldn't examine the details on that one either. Still, it's pretty neat.

  • heidenkind says:

    I remember hearing that story–not in school, though, maybe on TV?

    I love portraits, and the role of portraits in American history is especially fascinating, I think.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.