Draping the Drawing Room
This fall, visitors to Montpelier will witness another significant change to the Madisons’ Drawing Room. The curatorial team, with the expertise of historic textile consultant Natalie Larson, have identified and crafted historically appropriate red curtains—just as Dolley wished.
The treatments, installed on September 30 by Larson and Tom Snyder of Williamsburg Art Conservation, adorn the room’s three floor-to-ceiling triple-sash windows, precisely as the Madisons’ curtains hung during their retirement.
On the eve of the Madisons’ return from Washington in May 1816, Dolley Madison wrote to her dear friend Hannah Gallatin, wife of former Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin, that she and President Madison wished to procure “Three curtains suited to a country drawing room of silk, trimmed, and with cornices all of reasonable price – our three windows are near together and form three doors – The colour I leave to you (let it be red or variegated)… .”1 In addition to the window coverings, Dolley requested the fabric be used to upholster “eighteen chairs and two small sophas.” Later that summer, Gallatin wrote from France with fabric prices and requested measurements of the windows. Though we have no confirmation of the transaction, the use of red curtains is reinforced not only by Dolley’s known preference for bold colors, particularly red, but through period visitor accounts. Describing the Drawing Room, Mary E. E. Cutts, Sarah Worthington Peter, and Henry D. Gilpin all explicitly recalled crimson damask upholstery coordinated with the room’s prominent red flocked wallpaper.
Pragmatically, period window coverings provided insulation in cool weather and protection from insects year-round. During the Madisons’ tenure at Montpelier, the Drawing Room curtains not only complemented the other rich furnishings in the room, but also conveyed their taste for European high style.
Physical evidence uncovered during the mansion architectural restoration informed our research about the curtains. Fragments of red silk, believed to be a damask pattern from upholstery or window coverings, were found in the infamous rat’s nest salvaged between two walls. Tack evidence on the upper window architraves, with no physical evidence for the use of cornice or rods to suspend the curtains, suggest the Madisons employed a side hanging technique.
The curtains, made of tacked panels of red damask lined in iridescent green silk and ornamented with fringe, are tacked at the top of the architraves and pulled to the sides with chords and tassels. This method for hanging window coverings, also found in comparable historic design plates, encouraged walking access to the rear colonnade and offered an unobstructed view of artwork in the space.
1. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Hannah Nicholson Gallatin, May 26, 1816, Gallatin Papers, The New-York Historical Society, New York, New York.
The Madisons' Drawing Room, with newly installed window treatments.
Natalie Larson, historic textiles expert, and Tom Snyder, of Williamsburg Art Conservation, hang the Drawing Room curtains.