Although the burning of Washington, D.C. transpired long after George Washington’s death, the first president played an important role. Dolley Madison chose to rescue his portrait from the White House just before the building went up in flames. August 24, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington and Dolley Madison's heroic effort to save the celebrated painting.

White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

The Burning of Washington—one of the most note-worthy episodes of the War of 1812—took place 200 years ago, on August 24, 1814. After capturing the capital city, the British famously burned many of its most important buildings, including the White House. 

Although the Burning of Washington transpired long after George Washington’s death, the first president played an important part; Dolley Madison chose to rescue his portrait from the White House just before the building went up in flames.  The surviving painting, known as Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait, is one of the most iconic representations of Washington known today. 

Rescuing the painting was no simple feat. The eight-foot tall portrait was bolted to the wall of the dining room, making it difficult to move or transport.  After the American forces announced their retreat from their position at Bladensburg, Maryland, Charles Carroll rushed to the White House to hurry the first lady to safety.

Dolley Madison in a letter to her sister penned on the night of the burning

“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 to be 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.”

To Mrs. Madison’s household servant, French John Sioussat, and gardener Thomas McGaw fell the task of hacking away at the portrait’s frame.  It was turned over to two New Yorkers, Jacob Barker and Robert G.L. De Peyster, for safekeeping. While preserving the portrait was important, she felt it was equally critical that it not be allowed to be confiscated by the British. She instructed the men to destroy the painting before turning it over, admonishing them not to allow it “to fall into the hands of the enemy, as [its] Capture would enable them to make a great Finish.”

Image: Dolley Madison Directing the Rescue of George Washington's Portrait, August 24, 1814.
William Woodward, artist. 2009. Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

Many copies of the original Lansdowne portrait were made by Gilbert Stuart and other artists of his era. When you examine the two versions of the same painting presented below, differences between the original and its copies are immediately apparent. The version on the left is a copy of the original, which is shown on the right. This particular copy, provided courtesy of the White House Historical Association, is the version rescued by Dolley Madison. 

Art historians have carefully analyzed the portrait over the years and have developed interesting theories and interpretations. 

Is there a typo in the version of the painting that Mrs. Madison rescued? 

How did Stuart turn the creation of Washington portraits into such a thriving business?

 

White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

Watch the history of Gilbert Stuart's painting as told by Dorothy Moss, Associate Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The original life-sized portrait, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796, hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. It was a gift to the Marquis of Lansdowne, an English advocate for American independence from Senator and Mrs. William Bingham of Pennsylvania.

Replicas painted by Stuart are on display in the East Room of the White House, the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum. The copy that Mrs. Madison rescued still hangs in the White House. 

 

The Burning of Washington
Tom Freeman (2004)/Copyright White House Historical Association.

Washington as President

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