- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

Few Americans have walked the approximately 500 rooms of the nation's Capitol as painter Peter Waddell has. He recorded 21 rooms for his extraordinary exhibition "Inside the Temple of Liberty: 19th-Century Interiors of the United States Capitol, Paintings by Peter Waddell" at the Octagon Museum.
However, do not expect realistic treatments of the interiors of this national icon. The painter has brought a romantic, even surrealist, sensibility to painting the historic buildings of Washington before, and he maintains that approach in re-creations of the Capitol.
Consider Mr. Waddell's painting "Senate Naval Affairs Committee Room: 1858." The room was decorated by the Italian artist Constantine Brumidi, who worked at the Capitol for 25 years. Brumidi decorated many of the Capitol rooms in the flamboyant style that he introduced to the Capitol building in the 1850s. He was inspired by the wall paintings discovered years earlier at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Italian painted a fantastic and brilliantly colored Senate Naval Affairs Committee Room, and Mr. Waddell restored it to its original state with this painting. He did this after finding an original Brumidi sketch of the room. He removed the blue rug that recently had been added and painted in the original blue Minton tiles. He took out the later dark-green overpaint around the mythological figures and repainted the areas in their original creamy blues. The painter also divested the room of a modern fake partition and bathed the room's extension to a far window with a golden light.
Mr. Waddell, 46, who came here from New Zealand in 1995, was drawn to the Capitol because of its importance and size. "The subject is enormous and could take a lifetime. I was a frequent visitor to the Capitol for the last two years and worked with their curators and historians to acquire the correct historical facts," he says. Fran White, a retired legislative lawyer who is a friend of the artist's and interested in history, was his researcher and writer.
The artist points out that the Capitol was very different in the 19th century. Nearly all the rooms were open to the public. The new Federal City had not yet built large meeting rooms, so the Capitol was used for funerals and worship services, as well as Fourth of July festivities.
The Capitol housed 4,000 Union troops during the Civil War for convalescence or as a temporary place to stay.
In the 1850s and 1860s, the Capitol doubled in size with the addition of new House and Senate chambers. To balance the chambers, a new dome was added in 1862. Mr. Waddell optically painted it through a lantern in architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe's abandoned Hall of Representatives.
Fortunately, the Octagon has installed a detailed model of the Capitol so visitors can observe its development.
Mr. Waddell recognized that the Capitol's exterior dome and interior Rotunda are its most salient features and depicted them appropriately even though it was difficult. "Painting the interior of the older dome nearly killed me. I kept trying to get the perspective right and had to paint and repaint the coffers," he says.
The outside dome had been constructed of wood and copper. Architect Charles Bulfinch designed the interior dome as a perfect hemisphere and oculus after the Pantheon in Rome.
Mr. Waddell re-created in his painting, "The Spirit of Washington," the interior dome of 1842. He did this using written accounts and two extant drawings.
Tiny figures in the painting, mainly women dwarfed by the dome, walk near Horatio Greenough's heroic, partially draped sculpture of George Washington. Mr. Waddell painted them averting their eyes and tittering to themselves because the "father of our country" is half-clothed. Greenough sneeringly boasted, according to an exhibition label, that he portrayed Washington in timeless dress and stance rather than "the ephemeral legislation of the tailor and haberdasher."
Another of Mr. Waddell's impressive works is "The Senate Balcony," a big, almost-square, realist-surrealist view of the balcony and the environs below. The painting brings an observer's eye diagonally back and adds fluted pillars of rose, brown and blue shadings on squared plinths. The artist puts a brilliant-red antique chair at the end where the balcony stops.
Mr. Waddell carefully researched the balcony's history and placed it in the 1860s just after the Civil War. He made the city below hazy, but visitors can pick out the first Union Station, lots of trees and the boarding houses where the lawmakers lived. "Senate Balcony" is a romantic surrealist fantasy that the artist created by his singular use of light. He says he has studied light since he was a boy in Auckland, New Zealand, and considers it the crux of painting with oil pigments.
The painter also simulated a folding screen of the 1800s, a form of art popular at the time. Although artists decorated many with wallpaper depicting exotic panoramic views, Mr. Waddell painted a chronological panorama of Capitol interior architectural and decorative elements, as well as furnishings. Several chairs, similar to ones in the screen, sit nearby.
The folding screen is the high point of Mr. Waddell's show. On a smaller scale, it traces the delightful journey through the rooms in the Capitol of the painter's other works. The exhibit runs through Oct. 15. Don't miss it.

WHAT: "Inside the Temple of Liberty: 19th-Century Interiors of the United States Capitol, Paintings by Peter Waddell"
WHERE: Octagon Museum, 1799 New York Ave. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Oct. 15
TICKETS: $5 adults, $3 students and seniors
PHONE: 202/638-3221


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