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Only Peter Waddell would go to Istanbul because of Pierre L’Enfant.
The artist, whose show of paintings of the Hagia Sofia continues at Anton Gallery through Dec. 30, was born and raised in New Zealand. But since arriving in the District almost a decade ago, he’s become a self-taught expert in 19th-century Washington art and architecture. So it was with thoughts of his new project, a series of views of the U.S. Capitol, that Waddell went to Turkey, seeking the structure whose enormous dome he thinks inspired L’Enfant’s idea for the Capitol.
“Washington is a city that’s so informed by classicism,” Waddell says. “And informed by the Eastern sort of classicism.”
Once in Istanbul, the painter discovered “all sorts of connections that I never expected. A lot of the mosques in Istanbul have these quite formal gardens,” which Waddell thinks influenced 18th-century American gardens.
Although the trip was initially inspired by the dome, the paintings that resulted are all of interiors. Only one of the canvases shows the profile of the Hagia Sofia, and that’s in the distance, through the door of the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent. “The outsides of the buildings are really interesting, but they seem to me to have been built for the interior space, not the exterior,” Waddell explains. “In order to get a perfect interior, they transferred the structure to the exterior. Sort of the opposite of what happens now, where in order to get the exterior looking right, the construction is all on the inside.”
The painter says the Hagia Sofia has “a sense of overwhelming richness and perfection. The light is breathtaking. It’s like this huge box of light. I was thinking what was it like when some goat herder in the sixth century came in there and the walls were still covered with golden mosaicsbefore the iconoclasts painted and plastered them all out. How overwhelming the experience must have been. It really must have been like God was present on the earth.”
Waddell usually begins his paintings with detailed drawings, but for this project, the qualities of light he witnessed drew him to start with watercolor. Six of those small watercolors ended up in the show. “I’ve always done a lot of watercolors for my own amusement,” he says, but he has seldom exhibited them. “It hadn’t occurred to me that Americans would be interested in such an essentially English craft. But people are interested in process in this country, which is a slight curiosity to me. Americans seem to be very interested in how things come about.”
Now, Waddell is thinking about his U.S. Capitol show, which is scheduled for 2002. Simply getting the necessary permission to paint in the building, he says, is “very complicated.”
Asked how complicated it is to paint at the Hagia Sofia, Waddell laughs. “I just started working, and no one ever bothered me,” he says. “I didn’t bother asking. The Turks are extremely good-natured, I have to say.” Mark Jenkins