Charles Bird King acknowledged in his inscription on the reverse of this portrait that he had copied it “from Wood.”1The full inscription on the reverse reads: “President Madison/Copy from Wood by C King/ Washington 1826.” Joseph Wood, an accomplished portraitist (though “his inclinations were for drawing landscapes”), preferred to work in miniature or in cabinet size, using the latter for his portrait of James Madison. Wood’s portrait, measuring 9 by 7 inches, painted on wood, and its companion piece, a portrait of Dolley Madison, are now in the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.2Hall, 157–58. Painted in March 1817, just after Madison left office, the pair of portraits were given in June to the Madisons’ close friends, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Bland Lee. They descended through the Lee family to Katherine W. Davidge (Mrs. John Washington Davidge) of Washington, D.C., who deeded them to the Virginia Historical Society in 1962 (received in 1967). See Occasional Bulletin, no. 15 (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1967), 2–6. Wood depicts Madison seated half-length with hands folded, looking directly at the viewer. It is a very winning study of the man, probing and sensitive. Although King enlarged the format, he wanted only a bust-length portrait and therefore copied only Madison’s head, even changing his costume. The features of the president are idealized, and, were it not for the strikingly idiosyncratic drawing of the sitter’s right eyelid and brow, Wood’s prototype might not be recognizable. The strong characterization of the sitter can be credited more to Wood than to King, who must have generalized his copy of Madison to make it more harmonious with his set of portraits for the marquis de Lafayette.3The painting was owned by the marquis de Lafayette and descended in a family branch in Turin, Italy. It was consigned to Christie’s, New York, Cecily sale, May 23, 1979, lot 3, where it was purchased by the Fine Arts Committee.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.