Artist Peter Waddell’s masterful, meticulous paintings open windows onto the past
By Tina Coplan
In the mood to escape the current moment without leaving the nation’s capital? Ready to return to a reimagined past studded with grand architecture, intimate interludes and a glorious bird’s-eye view across the 19th-century city? If so, then Peter Waddell—the maestro history-painter of Washington, DC—can illustriously lead you there.
To sample the artist’s visual enchantment, take a stroll south of Dupont Circle where a vivid mural fills the wall of a townhouse on Sunderland Place, NW. This public artwork shows the first two mansions built at Dupont Circle—the British Legation and Stewart’s Castle—as scenery on the stage of a colossal toy theater. The 60-by-60-foot painting is easy to see; its stage emerges from behind elegantly tasseled, trompe l’oeil drapes.
“I love the idea of pulling back the curtain on history,” Waddell says with gusto and in the broad accent of his native New Zealand. His smaller vignettes depicting local history and architecture can be found around town on the fronts of cast-iron call boxes once used to summon police and the fire department. In Kalorama, one of several call-box paintings by Waddell illustrates the six former presidents who have lived in the neighborhood, including Barack Obama, with their homes as a backdrop. Waddell likes creating public artwork, he says, “mostly out of love and my desire to amuse the public—and to help people think about the past. Knowing history is so important.”
The painter sets about recreating the past from his picturesque garret studio, located atop a stucco garage on the grounds of Tudor Place in Georgetown. As its artist-in-residence, Waddell has drawn and painted many views of the historic landmark. At the same time, he has fulfilled commissions for, among others, Mount Vernon, the U.S. Capitol and the White House Historical Association.
His series of 14 paintings for the latter illustrates views of the White House over its first century. Each scene and architectural rendering demonstrates the artist’s virtuoso handling of oil paint to capture subtleties of light and meticulous details. In one painting, Waddell portrayed the splendor of the Red Room at dusk during Chester A. Arthur’s presidency; the soft glow of gaslight delineates deep folds in the velvet curtains, burnishes the gilding on fireplace candelabras and gently highlights the fashionable flounces and trains of ladies’ gowns. The cumulative effect of these details, rich in color and texture, produces a dramatic hyper-reality, crystalizing commemorative views and narratives.
“I put tremendous effort into the actual craft of painting, so I’ll be able to do what I set out to do,” says the artist, who started out painting in a modern Expressionist style after attending art school in New Zealand. “It never occurred to me that I would end up painting with minute brushes. But as I went on, there were more and more details I wanted to include in the paintings, and they required smaller brushes,” he remarks. “Even on very large canvases, I’m working on a minute scale.”
In the White House paintings, Waddell imagines views that were never definitively drawn, painted or photographed in their own time. “People often ask for pictures of things that don’t exist,” he notes. “They want some time or place in history recreated.” To achieve that goal, Waddell may examine diaries, drawings, household inventories and invoices, or explore the buildings themselves if they’re still there. “I think of my paintings as historical documents,” he says, “but that doesn’t stand in the way of making things beautiful.”
The painter’s representation of gaps in historical imagery may have reached a pinnacle in two ambitious paintings for patron Albert H. Small and his permanent Washingtoniana Collection at The George Washington University Museum. For the first, The Indispensable Plan, Waddell notes, “I set about to show what DC would have looked like if Pierre L’Enfant’s plan had been fully realized.”
Jackie Strecker, his research assistant for the project and now the collection’s assistant curator, adds, “It was groundbreaking—the first time anyone has tried to visualize L’Enfant’s city as more than just a map.”
Together, Waddell and Strecker examined the original 1791 plan at the Library of Congress. “It was full of fantastic details,” recalls the artist. L’Enfant’s vision for canals, public spaces, military installations and government buildings found their proper places in the artist’s panoramic view across the imagined city.
It took Waddell a year and a half to create this and a companion piece, The Village Monumental, which shows how the city had developed by 1825, the year of L’Enfant’s death. Viewers will be able to see both works at The George Washington University Museum whenever it reopens.
From his first visit to Washington while on vacation with his father, the artist was drawn to the city and its history. His father, a cabinetmaker and American Civil War buff, and his mother, a theatrical costumer and librarian, passed on their respect for art and culture. When barely more than a toddler, Peter first accompanied them to the impressive municipal theater in their small coastal town of Hastings, New Zealand. “I was absolutely transfixed,” he remembers. Not long after, he appeared on that stage as a child actor—and also witnessed scenery painting for the first time.
Waddell immigrated to Washington in 1992. Once here, he was inspired to transition from the fine art of painting landscapes to historical views. Reflecting on the direction his art has taken, the painter observes, “I like to say art is about the physical—the external world—and the internal world of imagination and dreams and memory. It’s also about other art; there’s a long tradition of architectural and history painting.”
Asked about another practitioner in that great tradition, Piranesi—the Italian artist and architect who reimagined views of classical Rome—Waddell replies modestly, without making comparisons: “He was so good. That idea of being able to create a whole world out of a blank piece of paper. It’s magical.”