Two small paintings with a mysterious past are now on display in the Joe and Marge Grills Gallery at James Madison’s Montpelier. Our extensive research project, the Presidential Detective Story, have put together the clues to unpack “The Case of the List and the Landscapes.”
Our investigation started with the paintings themselves, whose small size correspond to the type of souvenirs that travelers brought home from the Grand Tour of Europe. The half-timbered architecture and steeply pitched roofs, commonly associated with Scandinavian earthfast buildings, suggest a northern European landscape. One painting shows an anchorite or religious hermit kneeling in front of an altar. The other depicts gypsy-like figures crossing a bridge in front of a ruined castle. Such exotic subjects appealed to artists and collectors in the Romantic period (ca. 1800-1830). Labels on the back of the paintings identify their owner as Edwin F. H. D. Conway (1816-1843). Family narrative suggested that Conway acquired the paintings from Thomas Jefferson, but a bit of detective work now suggests another possibility.
The Madisons owned an extensive collection of artworks at Montpelier that included many European portraits, sculptures, prints and engravings, and oil paintings. Dolley’s son, John Payne Todd, had particular means and motive to acquire such works when he was secretary to the American peace commissioners sent to Ghent to negotiate the end of the War of 1812. Between official duties during the two-year journey, it was common for American diplomats to indulge in Europe’s sights and splendors, and art lotteries throughout Scandinavia, Russia, and Europe were often frequented.
In his diary, commission member John Quincy Adams described an evening of cards:
“Mr. Clay won from me at a game of all-fours the picture of an old woman that I had drawn as a prize in the lottery of pictures in which we had all taken tickets. He also won from Mr. Todd the bunch of flowers which Mr. Russell had drawn, and which Todd had won from Mr. Russell.”
In 1848, Dolley Madison wrote that Madison’s painting Supper at Emmaus “took the prize at Ghent the day the Treaty of Peace between America and Great Britain was signed.” Given John Payne Todd’s presence in Ghent on that day, it is likely that he was the buyer of this painting.