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The Great Portrait Rescue: A Historical Whodunit

It may be Dolley Madison’s greatest claim to fame: rescuing the George Washington portrait before British troops burned the White House on August 24, 1814. Many documentary sources chronicle the event. Dolley described the portrait removal in a letter to her sister, written just before she left the building. Dolley’s friend Anna Thornton mentioned the event in her diary. It was the hotly contested topic of newspaper articles in the 1840s. Paul Jennings, James Madison’s enslaved manservant, included it in his memoir. The family of White House chief steward Jean Sioussat handed down the story, and it has been told and retold by historical writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Taken all together, the sources combine to tell us this:

The first person to propose saving the portrait was George Washington Parke Custis, Dolley Madison, and/or Charles Carroll. The portrait was removed from the frame by Jean Sioussat and the gardener together, or by the gardener alone, with or without assistance from Paul Jennings or Carroll. Alternatively, the canvas was cut from its stretcher by Dolley Madison with a carving knife, or by Sioussat or Carroll with their penknives. The painting, which was either rolled up, laid flat, or still mounted on its stretcher, was then carried away by Jacob Barker and Robert De Peyster, or by Barker and one African American man, or by Barker and De Peyster and two African American men, or by Dolley Madison herself, under her skirt.

If that doesn’t make much sense — well, welcome to the world of historical research!

Clearly there are multiple threads to be untangled here. Who was actually there at the scene, and what did each person do? Who should get credit for saving the painting, with so many people potentially involved? And what did they actually do to the painting canvas and the frame?

Untangling the Easiest Thread

Let’s start with the canvas and the frame. There were two frames, in fact. The canvas was attached to an inner frame (stretcher) that held it taut, and the stretched canvas was displayed in a decorative outer frame screwed to the wall. Art conservators who examined the painting in 1978 found no physical evidence to show that the canvas was ever cut off the stretcher or rolled up. Betty C. Monkman, Reminders of 1814, White House History (1998), accessed August 13, 2019, MRD-S 39183, Montpelier Research Database. Instead, it was the outer frame that was broken. The painting was carried away, still stretched on its inner frame.

That explains how Anna Thornton could write in her diary that when she joined the crowds of people evacuating the city, she saw “Gen’l Washington’s picture and a cart load of goods from the president’s House” (as the White House was then called). W. B. Bryan, Diary of Mrs. William Thornton, Capture of Washington by the British, Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. (1916): 172-182, accessed August 13, 2019, MRD-S 24985, Montpelier Research Database. Thornton couldn’t have identified a rolled-up canvas, but a nearly 8-foot-tall painting mounted on a stretcher would be harder to miss. Any accounts that describe Dolley (or others) taking a knife to the canvas are probably based on a misunderstanding of how the painting was framed and what had to be done to get it off the wall.

Whodunit? Back to the Beginning

It helps to go back to first-hand accounts written close to the time of the event. Here is what Dolley wrote to her sister, just before evacuating the White House:

Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out; it is done, — and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house… Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Lucy Payne Washington Todd, August 23-24, 1814, Papers of Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed August 13, 2019, MRD-S 23666, Montpelier Research Database.

The one problem with this source is that the original letter doesn’t survive. Dolley simply shared excerpts with Margaret Bayard Smith, who wrote a biographical sketch of Dolley in the 1830s. Compared to Dolley’s usual chatty, scattershot letters to her sisters, this letter has a consistent, dramatic tone and explains some things that her sister would already understand. It appears that Dolley (or Margaret) may have polished the letter for publication. David Mattern, Dolley Madison Has the Last Word: The Famous Letter, White House History (1998): 38-43, accessed August 14, 2019, MRD-S 42050, Montpelier Research Database.

While Dolley may have improved the narrative style in her August 1814 letter, the facts are in line with another letter Dolley wrote in December 1814 to her friend Mary Hazlehurst Latrobe, who with her husband had previously helped Dolley decorate the White House:

“Two hours before the enemy entered the city, I left the house where Mr. Latrobe’s elegant taste had been so justly admired, and where you and I had so often wandered together, and on that very day I sent out the silver (nearly all) – the velvet curtains and Gen. Washington’s picture, the cabinet papers, a few books, and the small clock… it would fatigue you to read the list of my losses…” Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mary Elizabeth Hazelhurst Latrobe, December 3, 1814, Unlocated, accessed August 14, 2019, MRD-S 28298, Montpelier Research Database.

Dolley never claimed to have cut the canvas or transported the painting out of the building. In her words, she “sent out” the painting and “insist[ed] on waiting” until it was “secured.” She saw herself as saving the painting by giving orders to others. But stories soon circulated, crediting Dolley with personally cutting the portrait from the frame with a carving knife.

Who(else)dunit? Competing Claims

By the late 1840s multiple people claimed a role for themselves or for their family members in the rescue of the Washington portrait. Some credited General John Mason of the Washington militia. The son of Charles Carroll asserted in a newspaper editorial that his father had done more than simply wait around for Dolley while others secured the portrait. Rather, “as I have often heard it related by my father,” when James Madison sent word to Dolley to evacuate, Charles Carroll “on the instant, ordering Mrs. Madison’s carriage, and rising from the table, taking down the picture, he, with his penknife, cut out or detached (in some way separating) from the frame in which it hung, the original portrait of Washington and himself saved that portrait.” Dr. Daniel J. Carroll, An Important Incident in the Last War with Great Britain, New York Herald, January 31, 1848, in The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004,, accessed August 14, 2019, MRD-S 47568, Montpelier Research Database.

Jacob Barker and Robert De Peyster, whom Dolley had only referred to as the “two gentlemen of New York” who carried the painting to safekeeping, were highly incensed that their involvement was being written out of the story. They submitted their own editorials, couching them as a defense of Dolley’s primary role in saving the portrait, but being sure to note that they were the ones who ultimately fulfilled her wishes, by carrying the portrait to safety. They also wrote to Dolley Madison, cannily suggesting that she needed to rebut Carroll’s version in order to defend herself, but also ensuring that she would name them as her assistants.

Dolley obliged, writing to De Peyster that she appreciated his coming to “my defence in the later narrative of the picture rescue.” In language similar to the letter she shared with Margaret Bayard Smith, Dolley asserted: “I directed my servants in what manner to remove it from the wall – remaining with them until it was done. I saw Mr Barker & yourself (the two gentlemen alluded to) passing & accepted your offer to aid me in any way by inviting you to help me preserve this portrait – which you kindly carried between you to the humble but safe roof which sheltered it awhile.” Dolley concluded:

I acted thus because of my respect for Gen. Washington – not that I felt a desire to gain laurels – but should there be a merit in remaining an hour in danger of life or liberty to save the likeness of anything, the merit in this case belongs to me. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Mr. Robert G. L. De Peyster, February 11, 1848, The Peter Force Scrapbook, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed August 14, 2019. MRD-S 31865, Montpelier Research Database.

In 1849 historian Charles Jared Ingersoll contributed his own scenario to the debate, after interviewing White House chief steward Jean Sioussat (“French John”). Ingersoll’s version began with Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, appearing at the President’s House to ask that the portrait be protected, “and Mrs. Madison deemed it her duty not to leave such a trophy for the captors.” Scenes of the Last War–Mrs. Madison’s Flight from Washington., Evening Herald (Cleveland), May 22, 1849, accessed August 14, 2019, MRD-S 41369, Montpelier Research Database.

Perhaps in deference to those who believed Dolley had cut the canvas, Ingersoll described her standing by “with the carving knife in her hand,” while Sioussat and Irish gardener Thomas M’Gaw [Magraw] used a hatchet to try to remove the painting from gilt frame on the wall. Charles Carroll came through and scolded Dolley “for risking capture for such an object” when it was high time to evacuate. As Sioussat recalled, Dolley left before the portrait was off the wall. Meanwhile, while Sioussat was out of the room looking for an axe, Magraw managed to free the portrait, handing it over to Jacob Barker and an African American man who was probably enslaved to Barker. Scenes of the Last War–Mrs. Madison’s Flight from Washington., Evening Herald (Cleveland), May 22, 1849, accessed August 14, 2019, MRD-S 41369, Montpelier Research Database.


A Paul Jennings Perspective

Paul Jennings offered his own first-hand account of the scene in his 1865 memoir, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison:

It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Susė (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of. Paul Jennings, ed. John Brooks Russell, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison (New York: George C. Beadle, 1865), accessed August 13, 2019, MRD-S 23434, Montpelier Research Database.

Jennings doesn’t say whether or not he heard Dolley give an order to remove the painting. In his view, the credit belonged to the men who got the painting off the wall: Jean Sioussat and Thomas Magraw. Although Jennings claimed no credit for himself, Sioussat family tradition credits Jennings with holding the ladder as Sioussat worked to free the painting from its frame. John H. McCormick, MD, The First Master of Ceremonies of the White House, Records of the Columbia Historical Society (1904): 170-194, accessed August 14, MRD-S 26359, Montpelier Research Database.

Paul Jennings probably never imagined that his descendants would return the White House nearly 200 years later to honor him, but on August 24, 2009, family members gathered around the portrait that Jennings helped to rescue. Photo: Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

Whodunit (and Why Care About It)?

Historical research might be simpler (but less adventuresome) if a Congressional panel had convened after the fact, to thoroughly debrief each of the people who had entered and exited the President’s House in the hours prior to the arrival of British troops.

Despite conflicting testimony, we can still make some collective sense out of the accounts of Dolley Madison, Jean Sioussat (as presented by Charles Ingersoll), Paul Jennings, Jacob Barker, and Robert De Peyster. These accounts can be reasonably aligned into a composite narrative in which Dolley orders the outer frame of the Washington portrait to be broken, Sioussat and Magraw carry out her orders, and Barker and De Peyster carry the portrait away. Perhaps George Washington Parke Custis was the first to express concern for the fate of the painting. Perhaps Charles Carroll joined in the frame-breaking effort before or after he chastised Dolley for delaying her departure. Perhaps Sioussat missed the pivotal moment when the frame gave way, as he searched for a sturdier axe. Dolley likely left the scene at a point when she felt satisfied that her instructions to save or destroy the portrait would be carried out, whether or not she was physically present when the frame was broken or the portrait carried away.

This artist’s rendering acknowledges the roles of many participants in the portrait rescue. Jean Sioussat packs Cabinet papers, Paul Jennings holds a ladder, Thomas Magraw and Jacob Barker pass by the Washington portrait, Dolley Madison gives directions, Robert De Peyster collects baggage, and enslaved maid Sukey prepares to leave. William Woodward, artist. 2009. Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.


We’re still left with the question: Why care? Why fight so hard for the credit of saving a painting that was only a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s original, and may or may not have come from his hand?

It must have required a lot of effort to take down and pack up the velvet draperies, but no one vied for the credit for that mundane act of salvage. The Washington portrait clearly meant more. Its rescue became, in retrospect, a grand gesture of patriotism: Washington the city was violated, yet Washington as the symbolic Father of His Country was saved.

No wonder everyone cared who got the credit. Dolley could have ordered the White House staff to save more of her own personal belongings; she wanted credit for choosing to save the painting instead. Charles Carroll’s son took pride in the story told within his family; he wanted to uphold his father’s honor. Paul Jennings countered the common lore; he wanted recognition for the White House staff members who did the heavy lifting. Each person who wielded a hatchet, held a ladder, made a choice, or drove off in a cart had taken part in a noteworthy moment in history.

Let’s give each of them their moment. They all dun it!