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Filling out the South Passage

When today’s visitors arrive to Montpelier and enter the house, the first space they see is the south passage, a hallway connecting the 1765 front and rear doors.  Using documentary evidence provided by the Research department, we know it was decorated with an amalgamation of paintings.  According to the Baron de Montlezun-Labarthette visiting in 1816, “The hall contains various pictures, such as: a Descent from the Cross; Charles II of England; the charming group of Venus and Psyche, after the antique, lightly veiled; a picture of shepherds and flocks, after the Dutch school … a landscape by Teniers, and several others.”[1]  There are a few other first-hand accounts that provide clues, but it was not until after Madison’s death that an inventory was created.  It listed paintings with very broad generalities, like “Card Players” and “A Landscape.”  Unfortunately, no further information, like dates or artists, was included.

It was up to the curators to start the process of acquiring paintings they felt Madison would have owned.  As placeholders for the actual paintings, the curators hung period-appropriate picture frames, each one included a title from the 1830s inventory in the handwriting of the inventory’s author.  For each painting that was acquired, a placeholder frame was removed and replaced with the new work.

Even though they never traveled outside the United States, the Madisons were able to amass an impressive art collection.  James Madison Sr. bequeathed many works of art to his family and Dolley’s son, John Payne Todd, acquired paintings while he was abroad in 1814.  Payne Todd was part of the Treaty of Ghent delegation and while he was in Europe, he procured many art works that he sent back to Montpelier.  This included many of the popular genres of the day: religious scenes and landscapes.

Of the paintings that currently hang in the South Passage, only two have Madison provenance.  Since the descriptions on the inventory are so broad, finding the actual paintings is extremely difficult.  We are pleased these two found their way back.

Since no other paintings with Madison provenance have emerged, it was the task of our former curator Teresa Teixeira to locate other period-appropriate works.  She had to determine, based on the popular trends and using documentary evidence, what would been comparable to those originally hanging in the south passage.  Throughout 2016 and 2017, suitable paintings were located and purchased primarily through auction sites.  In some instances, they required conservation before being added to the walls.

By the end of 2017, there was no more space to hang the new paintings.  Montpelier is closed annually for the first two weeks of January for installation and restoration.  During the 2018 closure, all the paintings in the south passage were removed from the walls and the Architectural and Historic Preservation department added a coat of plaster.  Together with Collections and Curatorial, the paintings were rehung using a layout devised by former Museum Technician, Tessa Johnstone.  This new arrangement accommodated all the various shapes and sizes.

Today, most of the paintings on the inventory have been acquired, though we are still short by twelve.  We are on a quest to find the remaining paintings: Bloody Garment of Joseph thrown to Jacob; Prosepine/Pluto; Monastery of St. Bernard and Monks; Siege of Gibraltar; Expulsion of Adam and Eve; Annunciation; Persecution of the Savior; Charles XII; Interior of a Kitchen; Arrival of Ulysses; and Magic Lantern.

[1] Baron de Montlezun-Labarthette, A Frenchman visits Norfolk, Fredericksburg and Orange County, 1816, Part II: A Frenchman visits President Madison, 1816, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (July 1945): 197-214, MRD-S 109