"But if you select a precedent for your longevity, I recommend ... your old friend my mother, now in her ninety-seventh year ... her health at present being quite good.” James Madison to family friend James Maury, 1828

Even today, eighteenth century matriarch Nelly Conway Madison stands out as a model of good health and keen mind at an advanced age. Dolley Madison’s niece Mary Cutts remembered Nelly Madison as “a lady of excellent education, strong mind and good judgment ... she took an interest in modern events as well as the many friend[s] by whom she was surrounded.” Mary Randolph described Nelly’s aging as “so respectable and so tranquil,” noting that “she still possesses her eye sight, her hearing, and her memory in an uncommon degree.” Visitor and friend Margaret Bayard Smith found Nelly busy with reading and knitting in her apartment in Montpelier’s south wing, and noted, “Her face is not as much wrinkled as her son’s who is only 77 years old.” Smith recalled Nelly saying “I have been a blest woman, blest all my life, and blest in this my old age, “ and saying to daughter-in-law Dolley, “you are my mother now, and take care of me in my old age.”

Italian artist Pietro Cardelli captured Nelly Madison’s strength and tranquility in the bas-relief portrait he sculpted in June 1819, when Nelly was a mere 88 years old. Recently given to The Montpelier Foundation by Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and now on display in the Joe and Marge Grills Gallery at the Montpelier Visitor Center, the plaster medallion was created during Cardelli‘s travels through Virginia to sculpt busts of current and former presidents Monroe, Madison, and Jefferson.
 
On learning of Nelly’s death in 1829 at age 98, James Maury expressed his sympathy to James Madison, observing, “'Tis indeed with sorrowful regret I no longer can return my accustomed acknowledgements to that excellent Mother for her kind remembrance of me ... She has not only been blest with long life, but also with the great ingredients for rendering it comfortable and happy: namely, health with a certain mildness & equanimity for which I ever considered her remarkable.”
 
We invite all visitors to stop into the Grills Gallery and call on “Mother” Madison as did so many visitors to Montpelier two hundred years ago.
 

 

Curatorial Department