Stuart’s portrait of Anna is remarkably similar to his portrait of Dolley Madison, not just because they are wearing similar low-busted dresses, wearing the same half-coy, half vacant expression, sitting in the same position and occupying the canvass in roughly the same way. The problem is in large part due to Stuart, who was an often-unimaginative painter with an obsession with noses and a tendency to use the same lighting tricks again and again.
For some reason, however, there are organ pipes lightly painted into a round frame in the background of Stuart’s picture of Anna. This is exactly the sort of detail that makes nearly identical portraits suddenly interesting, but nothing is explained. (It may be a reference to the painter’s origins as a highly skilled church organist, or to a musical instrument invented by William Thornton.)
One is glad for a little break from Stuart’s prim monotony. Especially apealing is an engaging portrait by Asher Durand of Maria DeHart Mayo Scott, married to 1812 hero Winfield Scott (who went on to devise the basic strategy for strangling the South in the Civil War). Dominating most of the other portraits in the exhibitions is a very polished if slightly dull full-length image of the British officer George Cockburn, a driving force behind the British burning of Washington. Painted by John James Halls, a British portrait artist with a touch of romanticism in his style, the Cockburn portrait (made sometime around 1817) conflates time, showing a calm, well-dressed man resting his sword on the ground, as Washington burns (years earlier) in the background. Painting would yield to photography as a medium for portraiture in the 19th century, but when an overwrought, idealized and ideologically loaded résuméof a man’s life was needed, it was a hard medium to beat.
Little is said about these works as paintings, and virtually nothing about the painters themselves. And the curators are cautious about making definitive statements about the war’s necessity or merit. “The British won most of the land battles, successfully blockaded American ports, and stymied American attempts to invade Canada,” reads the introductory wall text. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended this rather quixotic affair, essentially reset the clock back to the conditions that existed before the war began, with no official resolution to the problem of British interference in American shipping and commerce.
But after Andrew Jackson beat the British in New Orleans in 1815, with peace restored and the country still in one piece despite the calamity of what happened to Washington, Americans embraced the idea of victory, and the war was rich in nationalistic lore. History lovers will thrill to see an original copy of the Treaty of Ghent. Naval buffs will be sated with large canvases of sea battles (the United States tended to do better on the water). In the celebrity relics department, there is a red dress once owned by Dolley Madison. It may have been made from the White House velvet curtains that she supposedly saved along with the Washington portrait.