Sunday, September 27, 2009

Madison's Drawing Room

As I noted in my last post, I recently returned from a trip to several historic presidential homes in Virginia, James Madison’s Montpelier being one of them. The Montpelier estate was acquired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation from the DuPont family in 1984. A massive restoration project to return the exterior of the home to the way it looked during Madison’s time was commenced in 2003 and completed in 2008. The Montpelier staff is now hard at work trying to restore the interior of the mansion to Madison’s time. (However, if anybody gets the chance they should try to visit Madison’s Montpelier…it is just as stunning as Jefferson’s Monticello, but less crowded.)

One thing I thought some of you might find interesting was two of the pictures the Montpelier staff has determined Madison hung on the walls of his drawing room, the room in the house where the Madison’s formally welcomed visitors and where people would sit and wait to until President Madison was able to see them. I find these two painting interesting because they speak to the religious divergence we so often find in the Founding Fathers' worldviews: They were Christian in some sense, but rejected traditional Christianity’s emphasis on supernatural revelation and instead focused on natural revelation and human reason. As many of you know, Madison is one of the Founding Fathers whose personal religious faith we have the least amount of information about.

On one side of Madison’s drawing room hung a large painting titled “Supper at Emmaus” from 1610, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), a Flemish Baroque painter. It depicts the moment from the Gospel of Luke when the resurrected but incognito Jesus revealed himself to two of his disciples (presumed to be Luke and Cleophas) and then instantly vanished from their sight. This seems like an unusual painting for a non-traditional Christian to have hanging in his home, especially because it deals directly with the supernatural.

However, on the opposite wall is another large painting titled “Pan, Youths, and Nymphs” (1630s) by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656). Pan, as you may know, was the god of nature in Greek mythology. The painting shows a scene of Pan also with several other mythological creatures surrounding a bare-chested female character (the moon goddess Selene?).

So that is a really interesting contrast in one room. Perhaps both paintings were placed there so that regardless of who was waiting to see Mr. Madison, they would have something to view of their liking. However, it might also speak to Madison’s religious mind itself, struggling to make sense of his inherited Christian faith, the dominate faith tradition of his country, while also entertaining new thoughts about revelation, nature, human constructs of religion and Christianity. Then again, perhaps his ex-Quaker wife Dolley demanded something religious be included in such a public and prominent room. Nonetheless, these are two interesting and divergent pieces of artwork to be located in a single room, yet alone facing one another (the staff has done “nail hole analysis” to determine exactly where the pieces of work were hung).
Another thing I found interesting about Madison's drawing room was that he had two different portraits of Thomas Jefferson on two different walls. One Jefferson picture is grouped with several of the Founding Fathers, but the other one is grouped with members of Madison's family. This certainly represents the close relationship between these two men.

In more general news from Montpelier, according to our tour guide, among the upcoming projects during the interior restoration the staff will attempt to reconstruct Madison’s personal library collection. Obviously they will probably not be able to get many originals, so it will mostly be made up of copies of volumes they are able to determine Madison owned. It should be interesting to see what religious tomes he possessed when they complete their research.


Daniel said...

Although I am doubtful that someone's choice of paintings is a good window into his belief system. But I'll pretend to do so just because its fun.

Although supernatural elements surround this story, the event depicted is a natural revelation. Jesus broke bread and, in the breaking of bread, the disciples understood who he was. Jesus was revealed, but without need for miracles or the supernatural.

Theories that Jesus had not actually died on the cross had made it into print in the 18th century, so it is possible that Madison may not have deemed Jesus' presence in the room to be a supernatural event.

I hope I have spinkled enough "maybe"s and "possibly"s and "I wonder"s in there. Sometimes, a painting is just a painting.

Mark D. said...

And Madison, even more than the other top-tier founders, is simply baffling when it comes to religion. He hardly writes about it during his public life, but he was a serious theology student when at Princeton and even spent an extra year at university studying Hebrew with John Witherspoon. He's a puzzle, that's for certain.

I wish he would have written more!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Quite so about Madison, Mark. I get that he didn't cotton to the prevailing established sects, either for their inherent corruption and laziness, or perhaps their doctrines as well. One of these days I'll do a post on Madison's echo of Adam Smith on state-subsidized religion, which I think explains a lot.

Americans as a rule despised those fat cat pastors who cared more about their government subsidy than their flock.

As for the paintings, they were by Dutch masters. Anyone who wouldn't hang them in a place of honor is a brute.

Lindsey Shuman said...

The Madisons were certainly connoisseurs of fine art. By the way, you all know the story of Dolley saving the Washington portrait that still hangs in the Oval Office, don't you?