At Montpelier, we place James Madison on a pedestal
In “Mr. Livingston, I presume?” Montpelier’s curatorial team described the most recent additions to the Madisons’ prized Montpelier interior—the initial installation of statuary in the Drawing Room and Library, including six life-sized busts and two reductions. According to expert sculpture consultant and art historian, Dr. Pamela Potter-Hennessey, the proper display of these sculptures is often as critical as the artwork itself. During the Madisons’ tenure at Montpelier, many of their busts were displayed on pedestals in the Drawing Room, an imposing and elegant space. When escorted into the room, guests would have been met by a sea of marble and plaster heads positioned at viewers’ height.
The white, cream and grey busts would have stood out against the backdrop of bright red wallpaper, and their numbers would have multiplied as the heads were reflected in the large mirrors. Meeting their gaze, this cast of characters would have engaged each viewer. Further inspection would have revealed many smaller works positioned in more intimate groupings on tabletops and on the mantel.
As tangible stand-ins, the life-sized busts spoke to the viewers about such period concepts as nationhood, international politics, sentiment and masculinity. The central figure in the Drawing Room was a bust of Madison himself, around which the remainder of the group was deployed. Madison’s portrait functioned as a reference point, and the other characters related not only to Madison, but to each other, creating a readable text about the most important events of his lifetime and his public career—the American Revolution, the creation of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, continuing national struggles between power and liberty, Madison’s presidency and retirement, the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1817 and 1819, Edward Caffarena and Pietro Cardelli, respectively, sent Madison statuary with corresponding pedestals, confirming at least some of the larger busts were displayed on marble and plaster bases.1
Because no extant pedestals with Madison provenance survive, the curatorial department facilitated the reproduction of period-appropriate pieces based on classical designs. Local artisan David Amorose of Custom Finishes manufactured six truncated pediments, which are painted in a period fashion to resemble ancient marble pedestals. Malcolm and Paul Robson, from Robson Worldwide Graining, used historical techniques, including feathering, to mimic the Carrarra marble most readily available in the United States in the early nineteenth century.
The idiom to “put on a pedestal” suggests glorification and importance over something or someone else. Here at Montpelier, we have literally and figuratively placed James Madison and many of his peers on pedestals.
1. Edward Caffarena to James Madison, July 12, 1817, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.; Pietro Cardelli to James Madison, October 29, 1819, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.
James Madison after Pietro Cardelli
Malcolm Robson of Robson Worldwide Graining feathers a pedestal.
Paul Robson faux-marbles a pedestal.