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Rare Object of the Month: Unrequited Love for the Ages

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(The following is a guest blog post written by Elizabeth Gettins, Library of Congress digital library specialist.) 

This month, the Rare Book of the Month is not actually a book but objects from the special collections within the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we take a peek into the love life of James Madison through the work of a remarkable early American artist by the name of Charles Willson Peale.

Fourth President of the United States James Madison (1751-1836) was called the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” as well as the “Father of the Constitution.” He was also instrumental in reestablishing the Library of Congress following the War of 1812.

James Madison miniature. Charles Willson Peale, 1783. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
James Madison miniature. Charles Willson Peale, 1783. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

While Madison is indeed an impressive historical figure, it appears that in person he may have been less than an appealing catch to the ladies. Madison was known to perpetually suffer from delicate health and was small of stature, even for the standards of his day. Records indicate that he was only five feet, four inches and never weighed more than 100 pounds. He was also known to be socially introverted. However, he had a keen mind and was a very diligent scholar – so diligent in fact that it was thought to further exacerbate his health conditions.

Most men of Madison’s era married by their mid-twenties. Yet Madison did not advance a marriage proposal until the relatively advanced age of 32. Catherine “Kitty” Floyd, the daughter of a Continental Congress delegate, caught his eye. In 1783, as tokens of their mutual love, Madison and Floyd exchanged ivory miniature portraits of themselves by the artist Charles Willson Peale. As a special sign of esteem, Madison included a braided lock of his hair. Unfortunately, this love was not destined to last as Kitty fell in love with another suitor and sent Madison a rejection letter. Understandably, Madison was crushed.

Verso of oval portrait miniature showing Madison's hair in braided pattern. 1783. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Verso of oval portrait miniature showing Madison’s hair in braided pattern. 1783. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

This short courtship is frozen in time by the beautifully delicate and charming portraiture created by Peale. Peale was an American renaissance man who rubbed elbows with many prominent politicians and businessmen of his day. He was born in 1741 in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. At a young age, Peale showed promise in portraiture and studied under well-established artists of his time, including John Hesselius, John Singleton Copley, John Beale Bordley and Benjamin West.

Catherine "Kitty" Floyd portrait miniature. Charles Willson Peale, 1783. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Catherine “Kitty” Floyd portrait miniature. Charles Willson Peale, 1783. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Peale went on to become a prolific artist, painting the portraits of prominent men of his time including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. An interesting side note about Peale is that he named all of his children after artists or scientists. Three of his sons went on to paint themselves, including Rembrandt, Raphaelle and Titian Peale. Peale and his son’s works made contributions towards documenting an early American nation and also of helping to create an American sensibility in art.

While Madison’s love life did not travel an easy course, he did go on to have a happy ending. It was not until 11 years later that he advanced another marriage proposal. This time he was successful and, at the age of 43, he married Dolley Payne Todd (1768-1849) on Sept. 15, 1794. From all accounts, it was a happy marriage. Seventeen years his junior, Dolley was a widow that Madison likely encountered at social events in the nation’s capital. She was known for her social graces, which likely helped Madison’s popularity as president. The ever consummate hostess and decorator, Dolley went on to give definition to the role that the wife of an American president played. The concept of First Lady took shape around her pleasant and graceful entertaining skills.

Other Sources at the Library of Congress

From the Rare Book and Special Collections Division


Comments (5)

  1. This sort of thing is fascinating, because we think of these people as being bigger than life and great leaders, therefore their physical stature is greatly exaggerated in our mind. Even the adding a lock of his hair along with his ivory portrait to his first true love, is something right out of the renaissance, not what you would expect from the robust builders of this United States. History and true facts are always better and more interesting than any works of fiction.

    Thanks for the interesting history!!

  2. Thanks for expanding my understanding of Madison!

  3. It’s particularly close to home for me, because I’m descended from Kitty Floyd and her ultimate husband, William Clarkson.

  4. I also am a Clarkson descendant. My grandmother Anna Louise Wylie Clarkson Married John Niel McLeod Adam and had 4 sons one of which was my father.

  5. Very interesting, thank you!

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